NBA Free Agents 2013: Biggest Takeaways from This Summer's Early Signings
The first few days of the free-agency period are some of the most exciting on the NBA calendar. Signings, trades and meetings with players come at such a high rate that it's impossible to keep track without feeling like you're getting sucked into a vortex.
And that's without even mentioning the most dangerous rabbit hole—rumors. The speculation during this period comes flying off the hinges at such a rate you feel like you're in a horror movie. The rumor monster—sorry, couldn't think of a better name—is always on the precipice of eating your soul alive.
With Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and much of the remaining top targets still hanging on the market, it's an easy-to-explain phenomenon. At least for now, though, those players are well-covered enough. We know what Dwight ate for breakfast this morning, what color pajamas he wore to bed last night and whether his buddy Smith was there to tuck him in.
For now, let's stick to the tangible. There has been more than enough actual movement so far this offseason worthy of discussion, both on the micro and macro levels. There have been confounding deals, leaguewide trends and plenty of other happenings worthy of discussion. It's been, as the kids would say, super rad, dude.
Of course, none of it is actually official until July 10, when the moratorium period ends on trades and free-agent signings.
What are the biggest takeaways from these early unofficial official dealings? Here is a quick look at a few notable ones that stuck out to me.
Shooters Are Getting PAAAAID
When evaluating talent for the NBA draft, one of the strangest criticisms you'll often come across with a player is "all he can do is shoot." Meaning that a player doesn't necessarily have a 40-inch vertical, elite lateral quickness or the transcendental potential that makes so many wax on poetically. Those were criticisms lobbed at players like Reggie Bullock and Allen Crabbe in this draft, both of whom went No. 25 or later.
While no one would ever say that guys like Crabbe or Bullock are worthy of top-10 selections, the juxtaposition between these young first-round picks and their veteran counterparts is interesting.
I say that, of course, because guys who were once considered "only" shooters—and some who still are in that boat—have been among the hottest commodities on this free-agent market. J.J. Redick signed a four-year, $27 million deal with the Los Angeles Clippers in a sign-and-trade deal. Kevin Martin topped him by landing $7 million a year from the Minnesota Timberwolves, who also gave Chase Budinger $16 million over three seasons. Add Kyle Korver's four-year, $24 million deal and you've got a shooting party.
Heck, Budinger has shot below 33 percent from three-point range in half of his NBA seasons. Even illusionary shooters are getting millions handed over.
Not that we're complaining. Other than the Budinger deal, which is a decent-sized overpay, none of these contracts are outwardly egregious. When juxtaposed with reigning Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith's four-year, $24.7 million contract he signed with the New York Knicks, perhaps they look like an overpay. But Smith perhaps gave New York a hometown discount, and he has enough personality and basketball-awareness flaws to bring this all into perspective; not all NBA contracts are created equal.
As for why shooting is coming at such a premium this offseason, look no further than these NBA playoffs.
With zone-man hybrids—a scheme that involves packing inward as much as possible, brought to the forefront by the Boston Celtics—becoming the league's go-to action, the wing shooter role has taken a vital role. Basketball teams need spacing to have any flow in their offense. As seen throughout the playoffs, teams without shooting tend to struggle over long series because the opposition can key on that weakness by completely ignoring the non-shooters.
Take the Clippers and Redick for instance. For almost the entirety of their series against the Memphis Grizzlies this past season, the Clips had difficulty running their pick-and-roll actions because Memphis failed to respect their outside shooters. The Grizzlies would not be able to pull such stunts with Redick in the fold. Redick is also an underrated defender, but that's secondary to the point.
Teams have always needed good shooting because, like, the point of the game is to put an orange ball in a basket. That need has merely become more obvious in the past few years, and the market is simply catching up.
Bobcats Gonna Bobcat
As the NBA continues to evolve and take a more metrically efficient approach to team building—the heightened emphasis on the three-pointer being chief among those—it's worrisome that the groupthink might end up leading to a non-varied product. That teams will mostly be constituted in the same fashion, merely with better or worse players on each side of the coin.
Luckily, we have the Charlotte Bobcats ready and willing to subside those fears. The NBA's (kinda) lovable loser has seemingly gone out of its way to confound this offseason. It started with the Bobcats drafting of Cody Zeller over Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore at No. 4, and Michael Jordan's club has only continued the baffling decisions from there.
Of course, I'm talking about Charlotte's decision to give Al Jefferson a fat new contract. How fat, you ask? Enough to keep Jefferson's 289-pound frame well-fed for the next three lifetimes. As noted by Sam Amick of USA Today, Jefferson has signed a three-year deal worth $40.5 million. The contract has a player option for the third year, but if you can't tell based on the overall reaction to the agreement, it's a pretty safe bet that Big Al will be opting in.
There has been some pushback suggesting that this deal isn't so bad. There have been a myriad of justifications. Some say Jefferson will help Charlotte get to the salary floor. Others can justify the deal by asking the always-fun "who else were they going to get" question. And some godforsaken souls actually think Al Jefferson is worth $13.5 million per season.
The latter group is the one who would instantly point to Jefferson's counting stats for justification. It's true that Jefferson averaged 17.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game while being the rare center who can stretch the floor and knock down mid-range jumpers. And if this were 1988, no one would have even batted an eye at a double-double machine like Jefferson getting a fat contract.
But this is 2013. We have years of empirical evidence—both statistical and via, yanno, watching actual games—that point to Jefferson's counting stats vastly overrating his true value. Despite those 1.1 blocks per game previously alluded to, Jefferson is arguably one of the league's five worst defenders. He's a nightmare on pick-and-roll plays, with his slow feet and overall laissez-faire attitude toward defense proving to be a deadly combination.
Last season the Jazz allowed 10 points more per 100 possessions with Jefferson on the floor than when he was on the bench. That's not a fluke. It's been a defining career trait—especially while he's been in Utah. Here's a look at the last three years of Jeffersonian scoring numbers—for and against—with rebound rate thrown in just for fun.
I'm admittedly being a little harsh here. Jefferson is essentially a net neutral player. His teams are consistently better with him offensively, but they're also worse in defense and rebounding. If your team needs offensive help, you give Jefferson Tiago Splitter money and everyone calls it a day. Instead, Jefferson will make more money than Joakim Noah and Al Horford next year.
Bobcats gon' Bobcat.
The Spurs Are Giving Their "Big Three" Two More Championship Runs
With old teams, it's easy to speculate every offseason about whether this playoff elimination will mark the end of an era. The Boston Celtics' decision to blow everything up came after at least two years of that wonderment. And even then it was a little shocking to see them go through with it. Even when it makes sense, pushing the detonator on a guaranteed playoff berth takes some juevos—and job security.
For years now we've been asking that "when" question about the San Antonio Spurs. Their core has seen multiple speculated deaths. Whether it was the No. 7 seed in 2010, the first-round exit at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies a year later or the "passing of the torch" to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012, the final chapter always seems imminent. And then the Spurs go for another run and we all throw our hands up in the air at their agelessness.
Even after San Antonio pushed the Best Player Alive and his Miami Heat to seven games, there were questions. About whether Manu Ginobili would retire. About whether San Antonio merely got the right breaks at the right time. About whether reporters could handle another stressful playoff run filled by fear of asking Gregg Popovich a question that demands his triteness.
Well, it seems like we finally have an answer to that question. And in retrospect, we probably should have seen this coming. Barring a catastrophe or mass upheaval in San Antonio—not happening—these Spurs will have two more years to compete for an NBA championship.
The theory clicked when Manu Ginobili announced he'd be staying in San Antonio for the next two years. Terms of his contract were later released—he'll make $14 million for his troubles—but the dollar figure is ultimately irrelevant. Even if it's a slight overpay (it is), that's the cost of keeping a beloved franchise face around without insulting him in the process. Remember, this time a year ago the Spurs' contract with Tim Duncan seemed like a reach.
What Ginobili's contract signifies is a long-term plan. Other than Tiago Splitter (and presumably Kawhi Leonard, who will be due for an extension), the Spurs have zero money wrapped up past the 2014-15 season. Their books are entirely clean. Even Splitter's four-year, $36 million deal is a market-value price that could be moved within seconds of R.C. Buford making a phone call.
Ginobili's deal was a signal that San Antonio already has the long game in mind, even when it's playing for short-term excellence. Even free-agent signing Marco Belinelli only received a two-year deal worth $6 million, a shrewd signing in an offseason where shooting is at a premium.
Two years. That's what this Big Three in San Antonio has left. Enjoy it while you can, folks.
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