Essay: The Complete Amnesty Overview
In response to Grantland’s Amnesty 2.0 article, here’s a complete overview of my own detailed thoughts on which players should be bought out by each team. These were published in six different posts throughout the past four months, but for easier reading here they are in one easy click.
With the irreproachable Lockout upon us, the league’s financial structure for the next decade is completely unknown. Many are giving their best educated guesses as to how things will shake up—hard, soft, or flex cap, player salary reduction, a raise, more balanced revenue sharing, eventual retraction, franchise movement, a mid-level exception, Larry Bird rights, a franchise tag, sign-and-trades—but the most interesting issue, to me, that’s coming down the pipe, is the ever increasing possibility of an Amnesty Clause. What this basically means is that each team would be allowed the opportunity of slicing one contract off their books. That player would still be paid his money, but the contract would no longer count towards the salary cap. It’s a one time only Get Out of Jail Free Card. Love it when those happen in real life.
Like most terrible decisions that can cost your boss millions of dollars, bad contracts in the NBA have been known to ruin some lives. Even with innumerable resources at their feet, and hours upon hours of background research that makes a high earning private investigator look like a retirement home’s Guess Who tournament champion, front offices throughout the NBA continue to hand out colossally bad contracts, and the owners continue to pay them. Whether it be pressure to win now, put fans in the seats, or purposefully bankrupt their employer, some decisions have explainable motivation while others are just complete question marks.
I’ve decided to go through each team, five at a time, and analyze which contract would, in the words of Omar, get got. For the most part, these choices are simple; most came by way of common sense, while others were a bit forced. In real life it’s going to be hard for an owner to pay a player tens of millions of dollars to essentially eat hot dogs all day.
Atlanta Hawks: Joe Johnson signed a six-year, $123,658,089 contract in July of 2010.
To put it nicely, this contract exemplifies everything that’s wrong with the NBA’s economics. When Johnson, Atlanta’s best player, became a free agent in the summer of 2010, the Hawks were coming off two straight sweeps in back to back postseasons. They were middling, not good enough to seriously compete for a championship, not bad enough to strike gold in the lottery; the absolute worst position to be in. So, just weeks after getting their asses proverbially handed to them by Orlando, Johnson—29-years-old and set in his ways as a ball stopping two guard who jacks up a lot of bad shots and has already begun eroding on the defensive end—is awarded with an absolutely monstrous $123 million deal. He scored 10, 19, 8, and 14 points in each game of 2010’s sweep by the Magic.
(A final nail in the coffin: In their 2010 first round series against Milwaukee, Joe Johnson went 4-14 from the floor in the decisive Game 7. He attempted zero free-throws. Worst. Contract. Ever.)
Now I’ll try my best to see things from Atlanta’s point of view. The Hawks are built to win now, and Joe Johnson was their leading scorer and best player. If he left for New York, Miami, or Chicago, the Hawks would waste away with young talented pieces like Josh Smith and Al Horford on the roster. The team’s attendance—22nd out of 30 in 2011—would drop even lower and they’d be an on and off the court laughingstock. (Of course, now we know that the ownership group that signed off on the deal won’t actually own the team for the back end of Johnson’s contract, so the jokes not necessarily on them.)
For a team to win a championship, Joe Johnson can’t be the leading scorer. This is why we’re currently in the midst of a lockout. The Hawks were a mediocre team that faced two options with their best player’s pending free agency: Re-sign him to a max contract and handcuff yourself from adequately improving without trading other puzzle pieces (Smith and Horford), or letting Johnson walk, receiving no compensation besides future cap relief in the process, and starting all over. Both options suck, but the one they chose reeks of impatience. For this reason, nobody’s ever said “impatience is a virtue” without getting punched in the stomach.
Boston Celtics: Jermaine O’Neal signed a two-year, $11.9 million contract in July 2010.
As Charles Barkley pointed out during Boston’s playoff battle against Miami, Kevin Garnett’s starting to up-fake his way by the likes of Joel Anthony. I know $21.2 million, and he ain’t it. But the deal is expiring and could be a useful trade chip, so no harm there. Ray Allen also has $10 million and one year left on his deal. Looks great for the same reasons. The limitless yet enigmatic abilities of Rajon Rondo are locked up through 2014-15, and every other worthwhile Celtics contributor is either a free agent or hardly making any money that’s worth a fret. Paul Pierce might qualify as a contract they could part with (four-years, $61.3 million signed last summer) but that’d be like the Lakers choosing to cut ties with the declining Kobe Bryant. It might make sense on paper, but NBA basketball isn’t played on paper.*
The only possible culprit that comes to mind is Jermaine O’Neal and the petrified wood that’s currently supporting his entire body. He was as great in last year’s postseason as the Celtics could’ve hoped for, but most of his energy was due to extensive workouts with Tim Grover while rehabilitating his leg. Like Garnett and Allen, Jermaine’s contract comes off the books after next season, but he’s nowhere near as integral a piece in Boston’s last stand at winning a championship as those two continue to be. Betting on O’Neal (or any man who’s already made millions upon millions of dollars and just wants to lie on a beach somewhere) to keep his weight down and gut through another 82 games of pain isn’t the smartest roll of the dice. If the Celtics have one contract to get rid of it’d be his, and that’s still pushing it.
Charlotte Bobcats: Tyrus Thomas, five-year, $40 million extension signed in July 2010. Close runner-up: Matt Carroll, six-year, $26.9 million extension signed in July 2007.
Carrol’s contract should demand drug testing to whomever ordered it possible, but it’s expiring soon enough. Thomas’ deal was signed last season and barrels through the next four years like a slow moving hurricane decimating everything it touches. Whenever the NBA draft is on and an analyst begins to reason a questionable player’s high draft selection by explaining that he’s filled with “upside”, throw your television off a cliff and pray that player doesn’t become another Tyrus Thomas.
Chicago Bulls: Carlos Boozer, five-year $75 million signed in July 2010.
Meet the 2010 Free Agency Class’ bruised fruit. In short, if Boozer was in fact 100 percent healthy in the 2011 playoffs, Chicago couldn’t have made a more costly mistake. He was brought in to cure all that’s ailed the Bulls for the past five years or so. They’ve always seemed to lack that low post presence capable of taking over for stretches on offense and smoothing out the wrinkles that jump shooting inconsistencies tend to create. Boozer was supposedly an answer. Statistically you might say he was, but in weighing all the other intangibles which make great basketball players great, that’d be a resounding no. It’s never a good thing when your highest paid player’s most memorable moment in the playoffs was uncomfortable for everyone.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Daniel Gibson, five-year, $20.054 million in July 2008. All but $2.3 million of final season guaranteed.
Last year, Daniel “Boobie” Gibson’s responsibilities as a basketball player were higher than they’ve ever been (he had the lowest percentage of his shots assisted by about 16 percent.) It’s no coincidence that these responsibilities came on one of the NBA’s most dreadful teams. In the two years after playing 30.5 minutes per game in 2008, the year he signed on for five more seasons, Gibson averaged 21.5 minutes and recorded about the same usage percentage. There’s really nothing about Daniel Gibson that screams $20 million, and if it weren’t for his linkage to LeBron James, impregnating a quasi-famous R&B singer, and being blessed with an infectious nickname, there’s no chance he gets this deal.
On second thought, this was more a personal attack than anything. Just give it to Baron Davis. Wait, scratch that. Luke Harangody.
*It’s played on wood
Dallas Mavericks: Brendan Haywood, six-year, $52,267,500 in July 2010.
There’s a difference between overpaying for a guy you know will fit—as Dallas did with Brendan Haywood, fresh off a six point, six board per game average in the Mavericks’ 2010 first round loss to San Antonio—and just signing a free agent to say you’ve signed a free agent. The Mavericks are a bit different from almost every other franchise in that they can afford to give grotesquely awful contracts to necessary cogs like Haywood and live to tell the tale, and in this particular situation, the market’s low supply and high demand for competent seven footers forced Dallas’ hand in keeping the team competitive through Dirk’s prime. Obviously, the $52.2 million dollar means justified the end in the form of a 2011 ring, but still, this is Brendan Haywood we’re talking about. A guy who moved like molasses before badly hurting his hip in the NBA Finals. Have fun signing those checks in two years.
Denver Nuggets: Al Harrington, five-year, $33,437,000 in July 2010. Final two years only 50 percent guaranteed.
When I was growing up, my family would split Thanksgiving in half, spending the morning and afternoon with my dad’s side of the family and the evening with my mom’s. Both groups are rather large, and as I grew older and my cousins began to build their own little nests, the in-person attendee numbers began to drop. And so, right before we all dug in for lunch/dinner, calls would be placed on a portable phone to those who weren’t present. With the intoxicating gravy fumes rising up from plates 20 inches from everyone’s mouth, conversations normally went like this: “Heeeey, how are things…hmmm that’s just gre…” and there the phone went down the line, like we were passing around a hot coal. For some reason, this childhood memory reminds me of Al Harrington. He’s that guy who GMs like to pass around the league, knowing only once they get rid of him can they enjoy their meal…or win basketball games.
Harrington’s a big guy who plays like he isn’t. Looking at his per 36 minute figures from last season, he shot a smidge over seven threes a game to just two and a half free-throws. Unless those numbers level themselves out a little bit, Harrington will remain one of the league’s more toxic players.
Detroit Pistons: Ben Gordon, five-year, $58 million signed in July 2009.
Let’s get this out of the way: I like Ben Gordon more than Charlie Villanueva in every conceivable way, but the $20 million in difference between their two contracts is too great to ignore. With the clock winding down in a tie basketball game, Gordon’s still one of the scariest shooters playing. Attributes like “fearlessness” and “shot accuracy” don’t diminish with age, and those are his two strongest qualities. Last year he made 40 percent of his threes but scored a career worst 11.2 points per game and didn’t contribute in any other ways on offense (13.2 assist percentage). Spending $58 million on someone who isn’t on the court for about half of every game just doesn’t make sense. (Although that might be the in-over-his-head, recently fired John Kuester’s fault.) Maybe if Gordon’s financial baggage were a contender’s responsibility instead of a Pistons team currently changing ownership hands—a team that could really use a second or third offensive option (like, say, Chicago!)—things might be better.
Golden State Warriors: Andris Biedrins, six-year, $54 million in July 2008. $9 million worth of performance incentives unlikely to be earned.
Andris Biedrins is only 25-years-old? This shocks me. Maybe because over the past seven years he hasn’t shown up to work 40 percent of the time. To be fair, the year after he signed his contract, Biedrins led the league in field goal percentage and nearly averaged a double-double. Then again, how can anyone give someone who doesn’t have functioning elbows $54 million to play basketball? Given his injury prone history and inability to show signs of offensive improvement over the past few years, should Biedrins be a part of the Warriors seemingly bright future? He’s never quite fit in with the more athletic front court personnel surrounding him (how much better would Golden State be with Nene as the starting five?), but a change of scenery could do wonders for both sides.
Houston Rockets: Hasheem Thabeet, one-year, $5,127,720 in guaranteed money remaining.
Depending on what you think of Luis Scola (I believe the five-year, $47,041,037 contract he signed in July 2010 is a fair one at market value) he could be the choice here, but it’s only because of its length. Scola is a lot like Pau Gasol except three inches shorter, twice as crafty, and tough as a pirate. Unless Morey believes his first round pick, Marcus Morris, can eventually replace Scola’s production at a drastically reduced rate (extremely unlikely), this move never gets done. Apart from Scola, though, there really aren’t any questionable contracts on this roster. Brad Miller’s wasn’t pretty, but Minnesota gladly took it off Houston’s hands. Despite the team holding a $6.4 million option on it after this season, the only other option is Hasheem Thabeet. Thabeet is innocent and likable. Last we saw him play meaningful basketball—in college—he dominated as a help defender. Nobody blocked shots like Thabeet. Nobody intimidated scorers—both of the slashing and shooting ilk—like him, either. Sadly though, this feels like ages ago.
He’s still so young and blessed with physical characteristics that make his very creation destined to be one of professional basketball excellence, but after being drafted second overall by Memphis in 2009—ahead of James Harden, Steph Curry, and Taylor Griffin—Thabeet has quickly become one of the league’s bigger draft day busts in recent memory. Number two overall picks, especially those of the seven foot, three inch variety, aren’t usually dealt for gritty veterans less than 24 months after they’re drafted; it’s too large of a question mark when so much is at stake, especially for a team attempting to follow Boston’s “assets for superstar” winning blueprint. When DraftExpress lists “doesn’t always play hard”, “activity level”, and “poor rebounder” among the weaknesses in your game, something’s up, and unfortunately for Houston, Thabeet’s the fourth highest paid player on the roster.
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 season translating 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.
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.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kendrick Perkins, five-year, $40,252,656 renegotiated and signed in February 2011.
When discussing value, Kendrick Perkins could be the most polarizing player in all of basketball. For someone whose overall game lacks almost every aesthetically pleasing aspect in its makeup, Perkins inspires more never ending arguments than any current player I can think of. Here are a few examples: He’s the reason Boston lost to Miami (despite an inconsistent offense—definitely not Perk’s specialty— and Rajon Rondo’s broken arm serving as the Celtics true downfall), the missing piece in Oklahoma City’s nearly complete championship puzzle, an emotional leader, and the best defensive center in basketball not named Dwight Howard. Since being traded in what has become last season’s most scrupulously studied deadline deal, opinions on who Kendrick Perkins, the player, really is, and what he stands for in the bigger picture, have traveled through a long gauntlet of different checkpoints.
This isn’t about whether the trade was a good one or not, this is about whether Oklahoma City made a correct investment. Let’s look at what we know: Kendrick Perkins is 26-years-old; since 2007 he’s missed 67 regular season games due to a various assortment of injuries, including a strained left shoulder that’s provoked surgery and could be a recurring problem for the rest of his career, a torn right ACL, and a sprained left MCL; and he’s registered only 31 double-doubles (but averaged one for the 2009, Garnett-less playoffs).
But Kendrick Perkins is one of those players who you can’t quantify accurately using statistics, which is why he’s so damn perplexing. Now that Shaq’s gone, Perkins might be the most intimidating player in the league; that perma-scowl is only replaced with the wide-eyed incredulous look he gives to referees after they whistle him for a foul. Two years ago Perkins was ejected from a playoff game for walking away from the official, and he once said “F**k you, B***h” in the direction of Brad Miller after a particularly aggressive foul, loud enough for national audiences to hear crystal clear. Perkins isn’t dirty per se, sometimes it just feels like he’s playing in the wrong era.
Last year, the Thunder’s Harden, Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka unit was distinctly better on offense and slightly better on defense with Nick Collison instead of Perkins, who was the starter. Granted he was playing with a hurt knee, but Perkins’ PER in last year’s playoffs was an abysmal 6.1, his blocking percentage from the previous year fell from just below five to just above two percent, and his defensive rating was a career playoff high 110. He played 66 more minutes than Collison but looking at the numbers it’s difficult to see why.
Kendrick Perkins is a valuable player, yes. But asking whether or not he’ll be 100 percent healthy for the rest of his career is a legitimate concern, and the primary reason this contract could become Sam Presti’s biggest mistake.
Orlando Magic: Gilbert Arenas, six-year, $110 million in July 2008.
Otherwise known as the cocked and loaded 12 gauge shotgun pointed straight at Otis Smith’s forehead, this contract comfortably sits in the Throne of Debilitation. The consequences in taking it on could serve as a guillotine to Smith’s bare neck, and might even reach far enough to signal the beginning of the end of professional basketball in Orlando, Florida. The latter part of that statement isn’t as outlandish as it sounds, and that explains in small part why the league is in such an economically tumultuous situation right now.
Three years ago Gilbert Arenas was a legitimate MVP candidate. Last season he would’ve been lucky to resemble a third of the player who acted as the onetime unofficial ambassador for Washington D.C. basketball. In a way Gilbert’s demise was a minor representation of Orlando’s. Both had an ugly, disappointing year. Both, so it seems, may never recover.
I wonder about Arenas, whether he was ever healthy last season or if one foot had simply fallen inside the league’s revolving door. Heading into next season Arenas won’t be seen as one of the best 200 players in a league he once twirled on the tip of his finger. The gun-toting drama which set in motion his downfall was self-induced, yet because of its well-traveled level of embarrassment, it’s made him a pitied man. At his high point, Arenas was the NBA’s Ochocinco, blogging for NBA.com and connecting with fans on an unmatched level. He was honest—albeit strange—and people liked it. But as his basketball abilities continue to fall off the grid, so did his popularity. He’s a depressing man whose largest supporter could be on his way out of town, and should that happen Gilbert Arenas may be collecting undeserved checks somewhere far, far away from the spotlight he once loved.
Philadelphia 76ers: Elton Brand, five-year, $79,795,500 in July 2008.
Stealing from Zach Lowe’s Top 100 Players List over on The Point Forward, here’s Brand, coming in at 50:
Brand’s days as a 20-10 force are over, but he’s still a solid, snarling presence who helps his team on both ends of the floor. He is a very good offensive rebounder who has developed a reliable mid-range shot, making him a threat in the post, on pick-and-pops and as a spot-up release valve. Having a power forward who can do all of that is an asset on any team.
He’s a decent all-around defender who held his own despite being asked to work as a de facto center in Philadelphia’s small lineups. That meant guarding the league’s biggest players and doing his best to cover for Thaddeus Young on the glass. Brand wasn’t up for that every night, but he works hard, makes sound decisions and did well enough to make coach Doug Collins comfortable playing his most explosive small-ball lineups.
Brand’s free-throw attempts and assist numbers are way down from his prime, and that reflects his demotion to second- or third-option status as he enters his NBA twilight. He can still throw a clever pass, and he’s just a nice guy to have around.
Agreed, buuuut going back to those first eight words: “Brand’s days as a 20-10 force are over…” pretty much solidifies this contract as one worth disposing of on a young, rapidly improving basketball team.
Phoenix Suns: Josh Childress, five-year $33.5 million signed in July 2010.
A strange one. Why Phoenix chose to give Jason Richardson’s money to Josh Childress, an unspectacular player who does nothing exceptionally well and is most known for spurning the NBA for a Greek vacation, is inexplicable. Upon making his triumphant return stateside, Childress responded with the worst season of NBA basketball in his career. He attempted all-time lows in FTA’s (a career 78 percent shooter from the line, Childress was 49 percent last season!) and points per 36 minutes. His assist and turnover percentages were the worst we’ve seen, and his PER dropped to 13, nearly five points lower than he’d last produced in Atlanta. Basically, Childress was terrible, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll turn things around.
Portland Trailblazers: Brandon Roy, five-year, $82,309,690 in August 2009.
Three years ago Roy was deemed the hardest cover in the league by a highly reputable defender. Not only was his ability to score efficient and effective, but it was done with such effortlessness—at the height of his career, Brandon Roy was so good it looked like he didn’t have to try. During the first round of last year’s playoffs, Roy accomplished something no peer could equal—not LeBron, Wade, or Kobe—when he almost singlehandedly brought his team back from the brink of certain death in an instant classic comeback effort to beat Dallas. It was either the final explosion in what should’ve been 10 years of unrelenting bombs, or, for the eternally optimistic, the signal of a player who’s ready to step back into a full-time role as Portland’s savior.
In all likelihood, the best case scenario will be a mixture of both. Thanks to two uncooperative knees, Roy will never again be the dominant offensive presence we saw three years ago. What he could do, however, if his mind is willing to accept the role, is become a perennial contender for Sixth Man of the Year, backing up Wesley Matthews or an untapped Nicolas Batum and dominating second units on a nightly basis. That’s a great piece to have on a championship winning team, but unfortunately when that piece is making the money Roy’s making, acquiring any other necessary components becomes very difficult. Introducing the league’s saddest contract.
Sacramento Kings: Francisco Garcia, five-year, $29.6 million signed October 2008.
Francisco Garcia is one of those players who’s just…there. He doesn’t do anything great, doesn’t razzle dazzle you in any specific area or make jaws drop with unforeseen athleticism. Nope, none of that.
And while his contract isn’t large enough to make his signing feel like a horrid mistake (placing John Salmons here is equally justifiable, but at least he’s a proven scorer) it’s still a contract Sacramento—a team which REALLY can’t afford to dole out any amount of money that isn’t directly related to win production—wishes they didn’t have to pay. Since signing the deal, Garcia can’t stay healthy. He’s appeared in just 148 games (starting 74) over the past three seasons, and at a relatively ancient 29-years-old it isn’t quite clear how he fits into the young and growing Kings future. This contract isn’t crippling, but it isn’t exactly a negotiation chip when Sacramento’s talks of relocation continue.
San Antonio Spurs: Richard Jefferson, four-year, $39,892,000 signed in July 2010.
When Richard Jefferson was signed by San Antonio, many people lauded it as mid-flight refueling for an aging Spurs team that wasn’t crash landing, but didn’t gracefully soar like it once had. What instead happened was, well, a near-permanently damaging crash landing in Memphis. I say near because San Antonio’s upper management felt moving George Hill (a trade that I’m sure came with much internal debate) to Indiana for Kawhi Leonard, with hopes he could do the job Jefferson could not.
To be honest, it’s difficult weeding Jefferson out as a significant problem when looking at the team’s five-man units. He started 81 games, and was a key cog in the rotation for a team which spent most of the season in first place. But on an individual level, the Richard Jefferson experiment hasn’t seemed to work out for either party. In the 2010-11 season his points, rebounds, and assists per game numbers dropped to the lowest depth he’s seen since his rookie year. His appearance at the free throw line—once frequent trips to the grocery store—have become annual weekend getaways. That’s obviously not a good thing.
Richard Jefferson is 31-years-old. He’s a player who’s been identified by raw athleticism throughout his career, and taking that away has yielded much of his offensive and defensive production. He attempted a career high in three-point attempts last season, and hit a career high in percentage, which is great. It shows he’s fit in well to what Popovich wants and has integrated himself in with the team’s strategy, but something tells me it isn’t exactly what San Antonio expected when they signed him. If a cookie-cutter three-point shot was what they wanted, they could easily have just given a chunk of his minutes to Gary Neal (obviously they wouldn’t have done this before they knew Gary Neal was Gary Neal, but moving forward what’s the by and large difference between the two, apart from three inches?)
At almost $10 million a year, the Spurs were bamboozled by the artist formerly known as Jefferson, and with the freakish Leonard waiting in line, it’s only a matter of time before the former Wildcat loses his minutes to younger athletes capable of aiding Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker in one last hurrah.
Toronto Raptors: Andrea Bargnani, five-year, $50 million in July 2009.
This is an unfortunate, lose/lose contract that snowballed from a poor number one overall selection. If it wasn’t offered, the GM gets fired, as it’d be Bryan Colangelo’s admittance of wasting the crown jewel that is a number one draft pick. If it is, Bargnani gets overpaid and sucks money that should be waved under the nose of useful free agents instead. In a sane world, he’d get the axe either way, but Colangelo had his contract extended a few months ago. It was a tough line to tip toe—to re-sign or not to re-sign—but it’s a stubborn point of view saying that Bargnani as a centerpiece is good for business.
Toronto’s selection of Jonas Valanciunas in this year’s draft seems more like a replacement than a supplement to Bargnani’s status as the man. He can play in this league, sure, but he isn’t a franchise player, and might not be good enough to serve as the second best player on a champion. He’s a terrible rebounder for someone his size (at 8.6, his rebound rate was fourth worst last year among every player who suited up at the center position. By comparison, the league average for centers was 14.8. When we get into defensive rebounding rate things get downright messy, with Bargnani posting a 13.9, and the league a 19.5), a below average defender who has the admirable ability to make the most exhausted opponent lick his lips and get an extra kick in his step once they notice who’s guarding him, and all comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki seem shortsighted and unfair. If he’s shipped to another team that already has hefty players willing to do some heavy lifting, Bargnani’s future in the league isn’t as bleak as this write up makes it out to be. But in the present day, in Toronto, it’s not looking too good.
Utah Jazz: Al Jefferson, five-year, $65 million, extension signed in October 2007.
Al Jefferson might be the most skilled low post player in basketball. Placing him on this list was difficult and in the end, he probably ended up on it simply because, with Andrei Kirilenko now officially off the books, someone on the Jazz has to be chosen. I dabbled with Raja Bell, who has three years left and is a rapidly declining factor, but the money was inconsequential. Jefferson’s isn’t. He played 82 games last season for the second time in his seven year career, and his numbers were down from the first time he was able to stay healthy for an entire year, as a Timberwolf in 2007-08. Minutes were the same. But PER, points per game, offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, and usage rate were all down. What he did do, however, was lead the entire league in TOV%, which is an incredibly useful thing to say about yourself knowing what we know about the value each possession holds in a basketball game.
But all that being said, it doesn’t quite justify the money Big Al has received. Since entering the league he’s always been a bit undersized to play the center position, and has yet to play alongside a big bodied comrade. This isn’t his fault, but it does make building a team around him very difficult. There’s always the possibility that moving him or Paul Millsap to another city could spark the low post genius’ rebirth, but it seems like a long shot. At this stage in his career Al Jefferson has yet to show he’s capable of putting a team on his back and carrying them towards anything substantial. Last year he had Deron Williams as a point guard and still, nothing. Some guys are really talented and we end up concocting excuses as to why they can’t seem to win. They don’t have the right pieces around them or the system wasn’t the right fit. (I believe I’m guilty of doing this just a few sentences ago). Al Jefferson needs no excuses. He’s obviously talented, but he forever seems to be stuck in a purgatory like chasm between statistical production and winning basketball games. Those are just the cards some guys are dealt, and figuring out how to pay the type is awfully difficult.
Washington Wizards: Andray Blatche, five-year, $35,730,997, extension signed in September 2010.
Rashard Lewis’ six-year, $112,753,505 contract might be more toxic than the monkey from Outbreak, but the blood isn’t on Washington’s hands. This one is. John Wall will not make as much money as Andray Blatche until the 2014-15 season, when he’s up for a qualifying offer. This is madness. Signing Blatche, a slow, low post craftsman to serve as John Wall’s sidekick is ridiculous. Barring out the man’s lackadaisical tendencies on defense, his poor off the court use of common sense, and an overall reputation as a very talented young kid who just doesn’t “get it”, Blatche doesn’t fit in with Washington’s effort to rebuild around John Wall. Almost every other big is athletic, eager to run in transition like little kids coming down the stairs Christmas morning, but looking at Blatche how many times do you see him happily obliging? Once a game? Once a week?
Players of Blatche’s breed are dying out, which isn’t good for the league, it’s great. His expressive immaturity both on and off the court and overall spiritless demeanor are a perfect throwback to what the league shamefully showcased in the dark five or six year period following Michael Jordan’s second retirement. Blatche is a stat stuffer who goes about getting his numbers in infuriating or comical ways, depending on where your rooting interests lie.
Remember the scene in Independence Day when the white coat scientists are attacked by a monstrous alien who’s believed to be sedated in that top secret underground lab. Before killing everything in the room and convincing Bill Pullman to declare nuclear war, the alien is a grotesque science experiment, poked and prodded, scrupulously studied for any clues as to why it’s so malevolent and what its motivations are. This is what I think of whenever someone writes about Andray Blatche trying to defend a common pick and roll. Needless to say it isn’t worth $35 million.