Essay: Evaluating The Wonders Of A NBA Amnesty Clause, Part IV
Here’s Part IV of Shaky Ankles’ analysis into the league’s worst contracts—team by team.
Milwaukee Bucks: Drew Gooden, five-year, $39,166,000 signed in July 2010.
Drew Gooden is rancid milk. For each of the nine teams who’ve had the displeasure of employing him over the past nine seasons, Gooden has spent his time briefly strengthening the front line before eventually being left out too long, exposing his severe limitations to the league’s harsh environment, and, sooner than later, getting tossed in the garbage.
In putting this list together, a common theme I’ve come across is players who’re actually three, four, even five years younger than I would’ve guessed. It must be the bored, frustrating familiarity we have with these guys, they’re massive contracts, and maddeningly unimpressive consistencies. And Drew Gooden could be the guiltiest culprit. He’ll be a trigenarian in September but feels so much older. Maybe it’s the way he creaks through offensive sets, saving his energy for a shot at grabbing a crucial offensive rebound that makes watching him play more than once a year such an intolerable experience. (Or maybe it’s his unbelievable incompetence around the basket in NBA 2K8.)
He’s been traded six times (!) yet Milwaukee still decided giving him a long term contract was an inspirational no-brainer. Don’t be surprised if he’s found a 10th taker before this one begins to curdle.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Darko Milicic, four-year, $19,999,500 signed in July 2010. Final year is only $1.75 million unless reamins with team past July 30, 2013.
When it was first announced, this contract had the power to make a fan turn to his local bartender, look up at the introductory press conference glowing from an unimpressive television perched high in the corner, point to his trusted GM and say, “I’ll have what he’s having”. It isn’t as terrible as it was viewed last July, but still, it’s Darko, making the decision here less subjective and more scientifically precise.
For all the terrible things associated with Darko Milicic, one of the big ones flying under the radar is the porous free-throw shooting. Granted he’s only tough enough to average less than two attempts a game as a gigantic seven foot low post presence, but 56 percent last season and 58 percent for a seven year career? I mean, come on, Darko!
In comparing him to Vlade Divac—simply because David Khan said that was an okay thing to do—maybe a lockout shortened season could be a good thing for Milicic. Divac had his best season in 1999—his first in Sacramento—playing all 50 games and putting up a solid 14/10/4 line every night. (He also shot 70 percent from the line that year, so that’s pretty much where this meekly flickering candle of comparison gets smothered out.)
As a full-time starter for the first time in his career last season, Darko didn’t show any crazy improvements on any statistical front, apart from blocked shots—a useful attribute alongside Kevin Love—to which he finished third in the league in block percentage. But let’s face it: Darko Milicic is a cursed individual. He’s only 25 but the stigma of a draft day bust that hangs with him encapsulates his entire legacy, no matter what. (That or the dyed blond hair. Both have wrought an equal level of embarrassment on Darko and those he’s close to.) There’s only one direction a team as horrifying as Minnesota can go, and that’s up; Darko isn’t exactly synonymous with reclamation projects.
New Jersey Nets: Travis Outlaw, five-year, $35 million signed in July 2010.
Risking hyperbole, this is an epic disaster, near calamitous enough to bring down everyone and everything in its merciless path of destruction; the type of contract that could inspire Michael Bay to make a movie. There’s a difference between overpaying for a guy who can plug up a necessary hole, and signing a free agent to say you’ve signed a free agent. To explain why New Jersey opted for the latter, with Outlaw serving as their decapitated homeless man’s version of LeBron James, is impossible.
To compensate a player who’d only started 32 of his 300 career games the same way you would a legitimate burgeoning All-Star is like inviting a girl who you’ve fallen madly in love with to a brand new romantic comedy that’s received an eight percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Heading into the situation, you’ll likely disappoint her, ruining any and all chances of sharing a happy future, but for some desperate, blind reason, you make the move anyway, bypassing a more conversation friendly option like mini-golf or bowling. Now imagine the ticket cost $35 million, and you were forced to watch the movie every other night for five painful years, while the lady of your dreams has moved to Miami with aspirations of becoming a respectable socialite/pole riding stripper.
The Nets are well under the cap and capable of making a big, Dwight Howard type splash of a signing in the future, but this contract makes the team’s top decision makers look bad. Catastrophically so.
New Orleans Hornets: Emeka Okafor, six-year, $72 million signed in August 2008.
Was Emeka Okafor’s rookie season also his most productive? Being that his contract was signed in the summer of 2008, unfortunately nobody with the power to dab ink on such a substantial check could’ve asked this question. Despite finishing third in the league in field goal percentage last year (57.3 percent), with hindsight on our side, the answer is probably yes.
In the season he won Rookie of the Year over Dwight Howard, averaging 15 points (a figure he’s yet to match) and just over 10 rebounds a game (including four off the offensive glass, good for second in the entire league), Emeka Okafor looked like Charlotte’s franchise big man of the future. Then, in the offseason, he decided to put on 20 pounds. His ankles wondered why they didn’t get a say in the decision and demanded a divorce. Okafor missed three quarters of what most figured to be an improved second season with lower body issues. Now he’s 28, two seasons removed from the pressures in Charlotte with three years and approximately $40 million left on his contract, and Emeka Okafor is an average NBA center. In their valiant first round battle with L.A. he acted as a six foul mercenary, doing all he could to stop the monstrous Bynum/Gasol duo on defense; his scoring and board work fell badly by the wayside.
It was Okafor’s first playoff experience as a professional, and he responded by having his PER drop to single digits. In Game 1, he registered just 21 minutes, and had as many points and rebounds as fouls. (As you’re aware, the Hornets won. This performance would be the opposite of useful for his agent, in the event he actually had an argument to make on behalf of his very large client.) By the time it was all said and done, Okafor’s backup, Aaron Gray, had outplayed him. In Game 5, Okafor chose to make things weird, taking consistency to a whole new level with a five point, five rebound, five foul performance.
The bottom line: Now that our expectations have been lowered, Emeka Okafor has comfortably settled into career cruise control as an offensively efficient, above average shot blocker. He’s unspectacular in every sense of the word, but he’s solid. Almost every team in the league would love to have him on board if only his contract weren’t so bloated. Most GM’s would rather pack on an extra 20 pounds then run around until their ankles snap, than take it on.
New York Knicks: Amar’e Stoudemire, five-year, $99,743,996 signed in July 2010.
Almost all of the players on this list aren’t franchise raising, near transcendental talents. But Amar’e Stoudemire is. He lifted New York basketball up on his shoulders—becoming the face of one of the league’s most recognizable franchses—and was embraced by the world’s least welcoming city, all in a mere six months. Then James Dolan traded half the team for Carmelo Anthony, and everything went to shit. The two don’t complement each other on either end of the court, and no matter what they say, they both can’t help but be more focused on putting the ball in the basket than contributing towards a winning, team oriented formula. Not to make something out of nothing, because there’s no documented evidence that suggests these two dislike one another, but if they care about winning—and no matter what’s said, everyone in the league with some semblance of a brain cares—then heads will butt over situational shot attempts throughout the next few seasons. And because it’s New York, the story will surely mushroom into a cloud of acid rain continuously hovering over MSG, releasing itself whenever a the team’s stricken with a losing streak.
Building around one superstar has always been the tried and true method of championship basketball in the NBA. Take a guy who’s more talented than everyone else, pair him up with someone slightly less talented yet reliable, and surround them with a slew of aggressive rebounders, stingy defenders, adept passers, and solid shooters. The Knicks were on their way to achieving this blueprint. What they lacked however was patience. They had their superstar serving as the foundation, all they had to do was add a few simple pieces (most notably a big man to stand alongside Amar’e—a Perk to his Garnett), let the youngsters develop into natural fitting roles, and in no time they’d be rewarded with a respectable, dangerous basketball team. Instead they dove headfirst in shallow water.
So why then are we kicking the guy who came to New York, when nobody else would, to the curb, instead of the new kid on the block. I guess for starters there’s the 800-pound elephant dangling from Amar’e's knee; he looked superb early in his first season as a Knick but then once he hit December, his numbers peaked, his scoring and rebounding began to slide. Amar’e Stoudemire is more likely to suffer a serious injury than the average NBA player, and that’s what makes his $100 million contract a high stakes nightmare.
There’s also something…dim about the man. It was nationally revealed in Jack McCallum’s 7 Seconds or Less, and continues in the present day with the league’s social awareness program infomercials (of which Amar’e probably shouldn’t be filming). With a superstar who wants to be compelling, like Amar’e, there should be substance lurking beneath the surface, but there doesn’t seem to be any. All we have is a basketball player who grew up in especially turbulent situations, trying his absolute hardest to make his relationship with one of the most unforgiving cities in the known universe a genuine one. He yearns to be eloquent, like Jeter or LeBron, but it simply isn’t in the cards. My real fear with Amar’e moving forward is that he’ll spend his time looking at the giant billboards of Carmelo strung from cloud-tickling rooftops around the city, and consume himself with one-upping his supremely gifted teammate. When news of Anthony’s trade to New York trickled on down to Stoudemire, he quelled any possible ego-related controversy by stating the Knicks now had a “1, 1A punch”, but which is which? And does it matter? To Amar’e I believe it does, and it’s one of the many deep seeded reasons why the Knicks would be better off building around one superstar instead of two.