NBA PM: Head Scratching Free Agency Deals

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This past summer, in the NBA, it rained more than a spring day in Seattle. Some players clearly benefited more than others. As the NBA embarks upon its new economic era, player salaries will spike dramatically. We are entering a new world where role players will eventually be earning somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million annually. The league’s rookie minimum, eventually, could surpass $1 million.

For that reason, it is imperative to understand that the salaries and numbers being committed to players today are being done with one eye toward the future.

The era of the “Super Max” and $30 million annual salaries, for sure, is upon us.

Still, the league isn’t there just yet, even if business is booming.

An 11 percent rise from the 2014-15 salary cap of $63 million is no accident. The NBA’s popularity continues to rise, as does its bottom line.

On July 8, the league announced that its 2015-16 salary cap is set at a higher than expected $70 million, beating even the most optimistic of forecasts.

Indeed, life in the NBA sure is good, and it is especially good if you happen to be the right player, at the right time and in the right situation.

Cory Joseph, Toronto Raptors: Four years, $30 million

If there is one example of a player “cashing in” on the new economic era, it would probably be Cory Joseph. Joseph, a 23-year-old who has shown some promise in flashes, will suit up for his hometown Toronto Raptors to the tune of a four-year deal worth about $30 million. Joseph is a hard working youngster who fought admirably and battled for his rotation minutes as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, but it is difficult to justify a $7.5 million annual salary for his production, thus far. Over the course of his four-year career, Joseph has played just 14.9 minutes per game and brings career averages of 5.9 points and 1.9 assists per game to Toronto.

Like Rajon Rondo did once upon a time, Joseph will have to live up to the contract. He was paid based on his promise, not his results. That’s not abnormal and it certainly is not bad, but it is true.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks: Four years, $70 million

There is no question that, when healthy, Wesley Matthews is one of the better shooting guards in the NBA. As the league continues its march toward “positionless” basketball marked by floor spacing and three-point shots, a player like Matthews—one who connects on 39 percent of his three-point looks—will continue to have tremendous value. He is a plus-defender who also has a better than advertised ability to create his own shot and one needs to look no further than the following fact: the Portland Trail Blazers were 41-19 in the 60 games they played prior to Matthews’ rupturing the Achilles tendon that kept him out for the final two months of the season and just 10-12 without him. While there may have been other aggravating factors that caused the Blazers to sputter down the stretch (and lose to the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs), the simple fact of the matter is that Matthews enters the 2015-16 as a major question mark.

Once upon a time, a ruptured Achilles tendon was considered a career-threatening injury. Many players have failed to recover from the injury, showing a significant decline and battling other subsequent injuries. When Matthews went down with the injury, the immediate question everyone began pondering was what kind of impact it would have had on his market value?

Apparently, not much.

In Dallas, Matthews will earn an average of $17.5 million per year over the next four years. One could reasonably argue whether he is worth that type of annual salary even at 100 percent health, much less coming off of what has traditionally been a debilitating injury.

Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks: Three years, $59 million

One could certainly say the same about Paul Millsap’s former teammate, DeMarre Carroll, but are we sure he is THIS good?

Though there are concerns as to whether Carroll was a “system player” reminiscent of Lance Stephenson’s situation in Indiana as a member of the Pacers, the fact as it relates to Carroll is that he is just 28 years old. It is still fair to question whether his 12.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in 2014-15 warrant the hefty payday he received from the Toronto Raptors, but the decision for the Atlanta Hawks to retain Paul Millsap raises the same sorts of questions.

That Millsap is two years older than Carroll and earning an average of $19 million over the next three seasons (as opposed to $15 million annually for Carroll) raises an eyebrow. Granted, Millsap was probably the most consistent player for Mike Budenholzer’s top-seeded Hawks over the course of last season, but their unceremonious ouster at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers should have made everyone question whether the Hawks, as currently constructed, are built to succeed in the playoffs. Without question, when the game is on the line, playoff games are won by superstars that are capable of heroics.

Can Millsap be that guy? Whether or not he can be, the Hawks will be paying him like he is. His per game averages of 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists was a magnificent value for the Hawks when they were paying him $9.5 million per year over each of the past two seasons. But now, with double the salary, they will need Millsap to do more. That proposition is unlikely, especially as he closes in on his 31st birthday.

It’s worth noting that Millsap actually took less money to stay in Atlanta, as the Orlando Magic reportedly offered him a four-year, $80 million max deal.

Iman Shumpert, Cleveland Cavaliers: Four years, $40 million

After losing to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers entered the offseason with tons of questions. Shumpert, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Matthews Dellevedova and J.R. Smith all entered the offseason with questions about their future as well. Although the latter three remain unsigned (but a Thompson deal seems very likely), Shumpert was retained to the tune of four years and $40 million. As a rookie with the New York Knicks, in 2012, Shumpert was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team in a season that was cut short after the shooting guard tore his ACL against the Miami HEAT in the first round of the playoffs. Since then, Shumpert has struggled to find consistency, though he has remained capable of playing suffocating perimeter defense, at least in spurts. Offensively, he is still challenged and has seemed to struggle with finding a consistent way to score in the NBA. This was evident in the Eastern Conference Finals and the NBA Finals, where, despite increased usage and opportunity, Shumpert scored just 7.7 points per game and shot a miserable 30 percent from the field.

Despite the Cavaliers making Shumpert a restricted free agent, the club opted to re-sign him to the rich deal as opposed to allowing him set his own price on the open market. Had the Cavaliers opted for the more patient approach, it would have been difficult to imagine another team offering Shumpert a higher average annual salary.

Enes Kanter, Portland Trail Blazers: Four years, $70 million

In the wake of LaMarcus Aldridge’s depature, the Portland Trail Blazers also lost Robin Lopez to the New York Knicks. Suddenly, the franchise not only found themselves with a serious void in the middle, but with a lot of money to spend. On July 9, the Trail Blazers signed restricted free agent Enes Kanter to a maximum-allowable four-year, $70 million offer sheet. At this point,we do not know whether Kanter will be playing in Oklahoma City or Portland next season, but we do know he will be paid rather handsomely by either one of the two franchises.

For Kanter, the contract is an absolute windfall. Since being drafted with the third overall pick in the 2011 draft, he spent the early part of his career as a member of the Utah Jazz and while there, did little to endear himself to either of his coaches, Tyrone Corbin and Quin Snyder. Kanter earned the reputation of being a player who barked louder than he bit, wanting and expecting touches without putting the necessary amount of work in off of the court. A midseason trade to the Thunder saw him pair with Russell Westbrook to provide a sometimes dominant tandem. In 26 games of mostly impressive work with the Thunder, Kanter showed flashes of the brilliant potential that convinced the Jazz to select him third overall. His ability to catch and finish around the basket and his overall offensive IQ were each as good as advertised. Still, he leaves something to be desired defensively and, while he has shown improvement over his four years in the league, is still searching for the consistency that superstars are made of.

Although that search persists, Kanter is being paid the maximum, and he is the 11th player this offseason to sign for the most money he possibly could have under the current collective bargaining agreement… Talk about right place at the right time…

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One of the most difficult concepts for fans to grasp is that, in most instances, NBA players are paid based on their promise and potential. Often, the first question that many ask when a player is paid handsomely is, “What did he do to deserve that?”

Often, the more appropriate question would be, “How likely is it that he could live up to that?”

The answer to the latter is often determinative of what a player signs for. Aside from the influx of television revenue that the league will see over the next few years, one of the other factors that has had and will have a profound impact on player salaries, generally speaking, is the mandate of the currently in-force collective bargaining agreement that commits each franchise to spending at least 90 percent of the amount of the salary cap on its payroll.

In other words, this coming season, each team is required to spend at least $63 million on player salaries. In the next two years, with some expecting the cap to possibly rise as highly as somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 million and $110 million, respectively, we have already begun to see symptoms of the increased spending power.

Despite the bigger numbers, though, winning in the National Basketball Association always has and always will require good return on investment. In a world where superstar players will command annual salaries in the neighborhood of $30-$35 million, gambling on a player who fails to live up to his contract will still have adverse effects.

In light of that, for various reasons, the aforementioned players and their respective contracts, in two words, can be fairly described as “not prudent,” at least based on objective criteria as of this moment.

As always, we shall see what tomorrow brings.