Essay: Evaluating The Wonders Of A NBA Amnesty Clause, Part III
Here’s Part III of Shaky Ankles’ look into the league’s worst contracts—team by team.
Indiana Pacers: Danny Granger, five-year, $60 million extension signed in October 2008.
If the next five NBA seasons were a really, really long NASCAR race, the Indiana Pacers would be in prime position to jump more cars than anybody else. They have an empty ocean floor of cap space; young, talented, hardworking players/assets who didn’t blink in the Chicago series and will only get better; an energized, invigorating coach (think Erik Spoelstra in a likeable situation) who everyone on the team seems to rally around (throw in Brian Shaw’s championship experience as a steady-handed assistant for good measure and the coaching staff could be one of the league’s better); and, to top it all off, Kevin Pritchard—one of the five best personnel guys in the league–recently came on board in the front office. That’s pretty exciting.
This doesn’t mean they’ll win the race, but serious noise can be made, and if they aren’t bumped out of control from behind or flip themselves into a fiery wreck (i.e. throw Tyson Chandler a max deal and re-welcome Metta World Peace with open arms), they could be one of the most threatening drivers on the track.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, what’s keeping them from contending for a championship happens to be the most important ingredient in all of the NBA: A Superstar. Someone who can lift an entire organization and place a fan base on his shoulders. Someone who demands the same type of attention and respect when he walks in a locker room as he does a dinner party; he stinks of confidence and never needs to beg his coach to take the final shot, but he would if the play were drawn up for anyone else. Someone who’s supremely talented yet trusting of his lesser teammate to fill their roles and bring all the little things needed to win tight basketball games. Every champion in the past 20 years has this player (the 2004 Pistons’ starting lineup consisted of five guys who each resided a notch below the superstar’s level. If you combined any two of them it would make one phenom, so yes, they’re included for argument’s sake.)
What Indiana has instead is Danny Granger. He’s talented, hard-working, tough, and has played his whole career with a chip on his shoulder after watching the likes of Sean May and Rashad McCants get selected before him in the 2005 draft. Still, he’s a 28-year-old scorer who’ll probably never tally more than 1750 points in a seasontranslating to a very good second option but nowhere near a franchise elevating superstar. (In his defense, he’s amounted the most points from his class, which includes Monta Ellis, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams.) Removing him from the roster is an obvious step back in talent, but it allows the Pacers even more room to go after a true “somebody”, a player who can take all the competent and trusted pieces placed around him and finally turn Indiana into one of the slickest, most feared cars on the track. Unfortunately for the Pacers, about one third of the league is in the same position, but what puts them ahead is a slightly better supporting cast (who wouldn’t want to play with Tyler Hansbrough or Paul George?) and a relatable coach. I’m not sure who their superstar in waiting is right now, but I’m sure Pritchard’s working on something.
Los Angeles Clippers: Mo Williams, six-year, $51.263 million signed in 2007
The player who did the Clippers in, costing them the number one overall pick in a cost-cutting deal with Cleveland, was the anti-unremitting Baron Davis. The asset—if you’d like to call him that—L.A. received in turn was Mo Williams, someone who could hardly be thought of as a major factor in the team’s long term plans. He’s a shoot first point guard who, on a team with such bright talents as Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, and possibly Eric Bledsoe/Al-Farouq Aminu, simply doesn’t deserve the 12 shot attempts a game he afforded himself last season. He played on the Clippers fourth most active lineup, alongside Randy Foye, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Ryan Gomes, and they were the only five man unit on the team that played more than 80 minutes together and averaged less than one point per possession (0.99). Their plus/minus was a -56, far and away worst on the team. When Baron Davis replaced Williams in the lineup and played alongside those same four guys, the Clippers were a +52, allowed 0.12 fewer points per possession, and outscored their opponents 66.6 percent of the time. The Williams’ led lineup was just 30 percent.
After being dealt from Cleveland to L.A., Williams assist percentage fell off a cliff, plummeting from 43 to 28 percent. His shooting percentages went up, but that could be attributed to a change in the defensive focus of opponents as well as some injury issues earlier in the year. Mo Williams is 28-years-old, only two more than LeBron, but for some reason it feels like we’re nearing the end of his career. Since he was selected in the second round out of Alabama, Williams has drifted back and forth between the two labels of underrated and overrated. He was someone who saw his efficiency go up alongside his responsibilities, which is obviously a very good thing, but the stigma of failing to be James’ successful sidekick—even though the role as a point guard was doomed from the start—has lingered, and as unfair as it may be, it’s a big reason why I don’t see him playing a crucial role for a championship winning team at any point moving forward. The Clippers (yes, the Clippers) could be headed in a winning direction rather quickly. They still have cap space to play with and a perennial All-Star to build around. Getting rid of Mo Williams would be the right step for a franchise not known for taking them.
Los Angeles Lakers: Steve Blake, four-year, $16 million signed in July 2010.
The Lakers boast a fair share of atrocious contracts, including, but not limited to, Luke Walton, Ron Artest, and maybe even a one-legged Kobe Bryant making $780 million over these next few years. But nothing drills a hole in their fan base’s collective brain quite like the Christmas in July gift Mitch Kupchak gave Steve Blake. To put it nicely, Blake might be the worst player in the league. What it is exactly that makes him attractive to anyone with a basketball mind, I couldn’t say. His performance in the playoffs magnified just how bad L.A.’s back up point guard situation was—from an inability to hit WIDE open threes to a constant look of clueless indifference plastered on his face, Blake was embarrassing, and a symbol to the Lakers unreliable bench serving as their ultimate undoing.
Something interesting (also known as a shot in the dark at trying to make Steve Blake compelling) I noticed looking at Blake’s top 20 units on 82games.com, Kobe Bryant hardly ever shared the court with him. Of the 688 minutes Blake compiled with his top five lineups, Bryant wasn’t on the court for 578 of them. What this clearly indicates is Kobe Bryant’s pure hatred of everything Steve Blake stands for.
Okay, writing about this makes my head hurt, so we’ll end it on a pleasantry.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley Jr., five-year, $40 million signed in November 2010.
Conley Jr. was better than serviceable during his first playoff run, averaging a respectable 15/6/4 while keeping his team on track with its pound it down low offensive strategy, neither losing focus nor looking rattled. Still, he shot sub-30 percent from beyond the arc and sub-40 percent from the floor, which doesn’t exactly open up the lane for those aforementioned big guys down low to go to work. In the current Golden Age of Point Guards we’re going through, Conley Jr. is muddled in the third tier behind the elites like Rose, Rondo, and Paul, and the slightly inferior Tony Parker and Steve Nash types. We don’t really know what Conley Jr. can be. He isn’t scrupulously studied like fellow lefty Brandon Jennings or beloved and afforded mistake like Steph Curry. Mike Conley Jr. simply exists in the hinterland.
The Grizzlies extended his contract and obviously love him as an ever improving point man who brings stability and glass ceiling athleticism to work on a daily basis. GM Chris Wallace had this to say shortly after the signing: “Mike has improved significantly during his brief time in the league, and we are optimistic that the best is yet to come for him. With the signing of Rudy Gay last summer and now Mike, the organization has shown that it is serious about keeping the Grizzlies’ core together into the future.”
But is he really improving? Looking at his per 36 minute numbers last season compared to the one before, Conley Jr.’s field goal percentage was the same, his three-point percentage dipped two points, his scoring went up half a point, and everything else leveled off. In his fourth season, first as the team’s sole dependent point guard, we barely saw anything statistical indicating improvement. Stats aren’t everything, but they should be hugely influential when a $40 million contract extension is offered. The whole thing still feels premature.
How good could Memphis be if they cut Conley Jr. from the books, then swapped Rudy Gay for someone like, say, Parker (I know this won’t happen now that George Hill’s been dealt, but it made tons of sense about nine weeks ago). The Grizzlies instantly become a bona-fide title contender no team wants to face in the playoffs next year (including Dallas, L.A., and OKC) and the Spurs—SPOILER ALERT: After ridding themselves of Richard Jefferson with their amnesty clause—can land a player with superstar abilities to help bridge themselves from the Duncan era and ease some of the burden off an oft-hobbled Manu Ginobili.
I guess the question here is, how much better can Mike Conley Jr. be? How high can he climb and what are his limitations as a floor general? Is shooting the only weakness? He’s as athletic and quick as those who play the position, but unlike most of them he’s performing in a system that restricts him to the more traditional point guard model. He’s the team’s biggest question mark moving forward, which means he’s the most expendable. No owners KNOW what they’re getting when a multi-year contract worth tens of millions of dollars is signed. A new contract could suck the motivation from a player like a vacuum, or he could badly roll an ankle twice in two months and never feel the same confidence turning tight around a screen. Mike Conley Jr., a man by himself, is the unknown, and what Memphis looks like moving forward might hang too heavy on his back.
Miami Heat: Chris Bosh, six-year, $109,837,500 signed in July 2010.
Ah finally, Chris Bosh. Or as he’s now more commonly known, ”The man being paid $110 million to live in Miami, take wide open 18-footers, and avoid incessant blame no matter how atrocious he performs”. Rarely do players in their prime devolve from franchise leading talent/top 15 player to borderline competent third offensive option on a league runner up. In fact, a case could be made that nobody in recent memory took a grosser step back in terms of status and perceived ability than Chris Bosh. He’s firmly established himself as a one-way player whose offensive repertoire has become noticeably limited by his condensed role in Miami’s Dwyane Wade/LeBron James dominated offense. He only attempted 3.5 shots at the rim in 2010-2011, down from a 5.65 average since 2007. His defense transforms from inept to liable depending on the game’s context, and his on-court toughness simply isn’t on par with the what you’d like from someone earning a boat load of money.
His unwillingness/inability to force his will for a five minute stretch and take over a game with his offensive abilities was a non-story by the All-Star break, and by the time the playoffs rolled around our expectations for the six-time All-Star’s play had dropped to an all-time low. During a mid-game interview during the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Doc Rivers went so far as to credit Miami’s Big Two as the primary focus of his defense. It was a slap in the face to Bosh, but also an entirely factual statement. In his last year as a Raptor, 64.7 percent of his shots attempted from 16-23 feet were assisted. Last year, benfiting from the playmaking genius of LeBron and Wade, that number spiked to 81.6. The numbers and eye test both say the same thing: Chris Bosh isn’t a superstar.
To his credit, Bosh successfully adapted from being the first option on a bad team to a glorified spot up shooter for a possible champion, and that’s all peaches and cream wonderful, but the money going his way could easily be dispersed towards a few lesser talented players with larger hearts and grittier mindsets. (Imagine if LeBron and Wade had a roster like Indiana’s minus Danny Granger.)
Making Bosh a $110 million man has the potential to become a vast, overreaching, borderline desperate move; his necessity and importance towards Miami’s success is hardly greater than a healthy Udonis Haslem’s (a better rebounder, more skilled defender, and respected leader, all while contributing a solid 18-footer of his own.) If the Heat are unable to improve their roster any further over the next three years in large due to Bosh’s contract, things could get sticky down in Miami. But, of course, Bosh will crawl from the wreckage with nary a scratch; much like his body after a game of basketball.