The highest paid player in the NBA is…anyone? Anyone? Mike Conley, that’s right. You know this if you’ve been paying any attention to NBA free agency over the past couple days, or if you just paid any cursory attention to sports in general.
But wait, Mike Conley? Mike Conley, the point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies, Mike Conley? Yes, that’s the one.
The Mike Conley who has never made an All-Star team and who hasn’t appeared on an NBA All-Defensive team since 2013? Still, yes.
That Mike Conley signed a new contract worth $153 million over 5 years. And that’s real money. Guaranteed money. This isn’t the NFL. Mike Conley will make $153 million. Mike Conley will make $30.6 million per season. This and many other newly-signed deals over the past 2 days have left fans gob smacked. But this is the new reality of the NBA. With Basketball Related Income up more than 34 percent over last year the salary cap for the 2016-17 NBA season is $94.13 million. The salary cap for 2015-16 was $70 million. The NBA CBA states that teams must spend 90 percent of their cap space. This means the new “salary floor” is $84.729 million. The new salary floor is $14.6 million over the previous salary cap. At the start of free agency 21 teams had the ability to sign a player to max contract, meaning over two-thirds of teams were at least $21.3 million under the salary cap. In other words, teams had cap space and they had to use it.
So you effectively have a perfect storm. Going in to free agency many declared with this new reality they didn’t know how free agency would play out. Except we did; exactly how it has. Seemingly middling to mediocre players getting rewarded huge contracts for having the mere luck to have their free agency coincide with this unprecedented jump in NBA money.
As an intellectual exercise let’s look at 5 players who have signed new deals over the past 2 days. The players will be listed with their relevant regular season statistics from this past season: Age, Position, Games Played, Field Goal Percentage, 3-point Field Goal Percentage, Points Per Game, Rebounds Per Game, Assists Per Game, Blocks Per Game, Steals Per Game and Player Efficiency Rating rank by conference and position (an aggregated metric which attempts to create an all-in-one rating based on a player’s statistical performance), but no name so as not to create bias. While these stats do not represent every consideration as to a player’s “worth”, it approximates at least some aspects taken into consideration when negotiating a contract.
Player 1 – Age: 27…Position: SF…Games Played: 61…FG%: 49.2…3FG%: 41.4…PPG: 13.7…RPG: 4.7…APG: 2.8…BPG: 0.3…SPG: 0.8…PER: 5th
Player 2 – Age: 31…Position: C…GP: 29…FG%: 38.3…3FG%: 0.0…PPG: 4.3…RPG: 8.8…APG: 3.8…BPG: 1.0…SPG: 0.6…PER: 26th
Player 3 – Age: 25…Position: SG/SF…GP: 59…FG%: 44.7…3FG%: 32.4…PPG: 4.2…RPG: 2.8…APG: 1.0…BPG: 0.2…SPG: 0.6…PER: 15th
Player 4 – Age: 23…Position: PF/C…GP: 82…FG%: 54.2…3FG%: 0.0…PPG: 5.5…RPG: 8.0…APG: 0.4…BPG: 1.6…SPG: 0.2…PER: 24th
Player 5 – Age: 25…Position: PG…GP: 76…FG%: 40.5…3FG%: 41.0…PPG: 7.5…RPG: 2.1…APG: 4.4…BPG: 0.1…SPG: 0.6…PER: 31st
Can you name these players? How about a little added context and description.
Player 1 – A versatile player with a well-rounded offensive game and pretty solid defensively when healthy. Hasn’t been healthy for a full season in 2 years.
Player 2 – Former All-NBA and All-Defense performer. Versatile defender, elite rebounder and rim protector when healthy. Hasn’t been healthy in 2 years.
Player 3 – Athletic backcourt player who struggles with his shot and isn’t very good defensively.
Player 4 – Good defensive player, good rebounder and elite rim protector with no offensive game. Really came through given increased minutes in the playoffs.
Player 5 – Quality back-up throughout his career. Good passer, decent enough shooter and defender. Key minutes for a playoff team.
Got it yet? On their face, what type of contract would these stats and descriptions merit? Let’s look at names and contracts.
Player 1 – Chandler Parsons; 4-yr, $94 million
Player 2- Joakim Noah; 4-yr, $72 million
Player 3 – Solomon Hill; 4-yr, $50 million
Player 4 – Bismack Biyombo; 4-yr, $72 million
Player 5 – Matthew Dellavedova; 4-yr, $38 million
The contract values may seem a bit out of place in reality, but remember, this is the new salary cap reality. To be fair, these players may end up worth these contracts. If Parsons can stay healthy he may be worth $23.5 million a season. If Noah can get healthy he will be valuable to the Knicks at $18 million a year. If Hill and Biyombo can continue to develop they may prove to be steals for their new franchises. Dellavedova is a quality back-up point guard and may even be a serviceable starter, which is a bargain at $9.5 million. However, other contracts can’t be justified as well. Timofey Mozgov is worth $16 million a year? Evan Turner at $17.5 million? Ryan Anderson is going to make $20 million a season.
Therein is the fundamental problem, the contracts shouldn’t have to be justified. At least not to the extent that the contract only makes sense if you fall down the proverbial rabbit hole of NBA front office logic. That is to say a whole bunch of rationale and faulty logic. Market forces, salary cap, potential, yada yada yada. Yes, contracts should be based on projections of future success, not past. Yes, teams have to hit the salary floor. Yes, the very fact of competition may artificially inflate a player’s value. But none of these constitute an adequate explanation for these out-sized contracts given that teams are the ones setting the value. It’s all fine and good for a player or his agent to demand a certain dollar amount or a specific number of years, but it doesn’t matter if no one will give it to them.
No fault lies with the player. A player can never be blamed for taking every last dollar he can get. That doesn’t mean they should be able to get it. As mentioned, some of these contracts will turn out to be good values. Some won’t. Some new contracts even look like good values at first glance. Ish Smith for $6 million a year. Dwight Howard for $23.5 million per year. Arron Afflalo signed for $12.5. Jerryd Bayless for $9 million a year. That’s not counting the max contract players, at least some of which make sense. But what these contracts should signify to NBA front offices is that middle range players, or those very good players below elite level, can be had for good value.
This isn’t some idea to artificially deflate player salaries, or a call for collusion. All that’s needed is a little common sense and strategic thinking. The goal of every team should be a championship, right? The Grizzlies spent almost $250 million on Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons. Are they really any better than they were before? Does keeping Conley and signing Parsons put the Grizzlies above the Thunder, Spurs or Warriors? What exactly do the Lakers get for spending $136 million on Mozgov and Luol Deng? Are they slightly less terrible? Would you rather have Mozgov and Deng for $136 million or Jeff Green and Biyombo for $87 million, which is what the Magic did? Or spend $30 million on Al Jefferson and have over $100 million for other players like the Pacers, if they wanted to spend as the Lakers.
Every team is different. Every circumstance is different. The Lakers were terrible last season and will continue to be terrible this coming season as they build towards the future. They had roughly $60 million in salary cap space when free agency started. The Magic are also building for the future but thought to be farther along in their rebuild than the Lakers and had about $50 million in cap space. In each case you can question the “fit” of the new players for each team and the value of some of the veteran signings. But at least the Magic aren’t signing players obviously on the downside of their careers who have little chance to make a difference on a bad team. Will everything the Magic have done work out, including trading young assets for Serge Ibaka and Jodie Meeks? Probably not, but it makes more sense than what the Lakers are doing. If you have to sign players just to hit the salary floor there’s still a smart way to do it. Signing more players at lower base salaries allows you to build a solid foundation and possibly still have room to sign an elite-level, max contract player to get to that championship. Maybe the Lakers are just preparing for next summer when the salary cap is expected to jump another $13-16 million. But still, Timofey Mozgov?
Is it too much to ask that those running NBA franchises not be stupid? That was a rhetorical question.