We all logically comprehend those facts, but for fans of woebegone NBA franchises, much of their lives are spent convincing themselves these stars could ride in on the proverbial white horse. But, soon, reality sets in. LeBron James will, once again, sadly not become a Milwaukee Buck this summer.
So, for most teams, the month of July is spent weighing the pros and cons of players on the second tier. Especially for non-traditional powers and small-market franchises, these are the guys who make or break a roster.
Buying in on a player at the right time at the right price—like the Dallas Mavericks did with Monta Ellis last summer—is integral to building a playoff-caliber roster. Buying in on a player at the wrong time at an overwhelming cost—as the Detroit Pistons did with Josh Smith—is like your 10-year-old buying a $3,000 pair of shoes and throwing away the receipt.
The NBA's collective bargaining agreement actively incentivizes teams to devalue such talent. With a few exceptions, general managers are scrambling to something of a stars-and-scrubs roster-building strategy. Get a few high-priced elite talents, surround them with a low-cost veterans and then fill out the rest of the roster with specialized minimum-contract players.
In the past, an enterprising GM might persuade a colleague to take on an $8 million-per-year player at the deadline. Now, executives are increasingly satisfied standing pat and hoping to fill the margins with bought-out veterans or just simply standing pat. This might be the biggest effect of the league's new, onerous luxury tax. It's also why we've gone two straight trade deadlines with massive duds.
You cannot miss on these players. At the same time, finding the right one might be enough to push a team over the championship edge. With that in mind, let's take a look at a few guys who will proudly wear the boom-or-bust chain around their necks this summer.
Lance Stephenson (SG, Indiana Pacers)
Stephenson is admittedly the impetus for the focus of this article. His next contract might be the single most fascinating subplot of the entire summer. It's far more interesting than figuring out which team will regret the third and fourth year of their Carmelo purchase.
Stephenson and Russell Westbrook are probably the league's two most polarizing players. Westbrook is obviously better, but they share this indescribable trait of fascinating with their talent while frustrating fans into throwing staplers at the wall after indescribable acts of stupidity. Superstars when playing well, maddening minuses when they give into their worst impulses.
As the Pacers stormed out of the gates looking like the best team in basketball, talk of Stephenson's maturity was inescapable. The kid with all the talent in the world, nurtured by Larry Bird and the comforting womb of the Indiana franchise, was finally putting it all together. The wild tendencies of years past were toned down, and Stephenson was on the precipice of being the two-way menace some dreamed. He was by far the Pacers' best shot-creator and a defensive anchor on the perimeter.
The second half of the regular season and postseason highlights why Stephenson is so polarizing. Suddenly, when the wins turn to losses and the counting stats start to dwindle, the idiosyncrasies become festering annoyances. When Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Stephenson's fight with teammate Evan Turner, he described Stephenson as "relentlessly irritable." He also noted that Turner was far from the first Pacer to lose their temper with Stephenson.
Such is the cost of doing business with Born Ready.
Stephenson is an NBA unicorn. He's a 23-year-old player with All-Star talent about to hit unrestricted free agency. He's also not going to give the Pacers a hometown discount. As a second-round pick, Stephenson played out the first four years of his career earning relative pittance. This will be his first big contract, and the types of offers he lands will determine his future in Indiana.
The Pacers have no interest in entering the luxury tax. They have enough room to avoid the tax regardless of what Stephenson makes next season, assuming they decline to offer Turner an offer sheet and get out from Luis Scola's final year of his contract. The issue with Indiana each of these last two seasons, though, has been depth. Having four of their five starters making $10 million or more and the fifth (George Hill) at $8 million limits how Indiana can fill out the rest of its roster.
If Stephenson stays in the $8 million range, I suspect he'll return. But given the number of teams that will have cap space and Stephenson's rare talent, it's going to be an interesting summer.
Kyle Lowry (PG, Toronto Raptors)
Kyle. Lowry. Over. Everything.
That's the saying that pervaded the Great White North this season as Lowry led the Raptors to their first playoff berth in six seasons and came within a game of pushing them to their second conference semifinals in franchise history. Considering that Lowry was nearly traded to the New York Knicks early in the season and most left the Raptors for dead following the Rudy Gay trade, it was one of the more inspiring transformations of the 2013-14 campaign.
DeMar DeRozan earned the obligatory All-Star berth, but most agree Lowry was the Raptors' lynchpin. A ferocious pit bull defensively and freed to take over offensively post-Gay, Lowry averaged career highs in points (17.9), assists (7.4) and minutes (36.2).
"Kyle has had a phenomenal year. I thought Kyle was a huge, huge key to our season ... Negotiating is easy for me if we want Kyle to be here and Kyle wants to be here," general manager Masai Ujiri told reporters. "Negotiating becomes tough when either party maybe does not want to the player to be here or the player does not want to be here. I think we'll be fair with Kyle and we'll figure it out."
What constitutes "fair" is a topic for debate. Lowry might have been the Eastern Conference's best point guard during the regular season. He tied Kyrie Irving, a glaring minus defender, for the highest PER among Eastern Conference point guards and was second behind only Stephen Curry in win shares, per Basketball-Reference.
At age 28, Lowry is in the midst of his prime and should be a good starting point guard for the duration of his next contract. But it's fair to wonder whether he can keep up this level of production. Lowry has long been a very good, starter-worthy guard—underrated by the masses and appreciated by those who watch way too much League Pass. This season was also a significant upgrade over any other of his career.
It's also been a departure from his reputation as a locker-room cancer. Lowry wore out his welcome in Memphis and Houston with a grating, oft-pouty personality that rubbed teammates and coaches the wrong way. Lowry's previous contract, a team-friendly, four-year, $23.46 million deal, is perhaps the best indicator of his past reputation. For a promising 24-year-old to sign such a low-cost deal indicates how few teams were willing to bet on his personality.
“Sometimes you’d see his body language,” Ujiri told Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun in March. “And I’d think, ‘Why is he like that?’"
The words of late out of Toronto have been nothing short of glowing. Multiple headlines in local Toronto papers describe him as a "changed" man. That said, teams are going to wonder whether those changes are awfully convenient timing with his contract due to expire. With the way he played this season, though, those concerns are unlikely to dissuade many teams.
We'll have to see if that's a good bet.
Trevor Ariza (SF, Washington Wizards)
If you are unfamiliar with Contract Year Ariza, ask Daryl Morey. After a breakout 2008-09 campaign in which Ariza became an integral bench cog in the Lakers' championship run, the Rockets GM awarded the swing man a five-year, $33.95 million contract.
It took him one season to regret it.
Ariza struggled with his increased responsibility, and by the following summer, Morey dumped him off to New Orleans. In return, all he got was this lousy Courtney Lee t-shirt. Houston wanted out of Ariza's onerous deal and really did not all that much care how it happened. Ariza would then sleepwalk through two seasons with the then-Hornets before being shipped to Washington as fodder in the Emeka Okafor swap.
He put up middling production in 2012-13 as a usable swingman before, lo and behold, CONTRACT YEAR ARIZA HATH RETURNED. With a new gig in the Wizards' starting lineup, Ariza became an integral fixture on the wing, knocking down threes on feeds from John Wall and performing admirably as Washington's best wing defender. The ascent has only continued in the playoffs, where Ariza is averaging 14.9 points and 9.0 rebounds while knocking down nearly half of his long-range shots.
Contract Year Ariza is a top 50 player in this league, maybe.— Brian Schroeder (@Cosmis) May 10, 2014
Ariza should scream "CONTRACT YEAR" every time he comes down with an offensive board.— netw3rk (@netw3rk) May 10, 2014
Now go look at Twitter. See the endless jokes from smart people about Ariza's contract-year performance? That about sums it up. Ariza, like Lowry, is still in his prime and a light switch may have just been flicked. He's always had flashes of the 3-and-D skills in the past—but never with consistency the way he has this season.
Is Ariza the 2014 version of himself, a usable NBA starter who could help roughly 30 NBA teams? Or is Ariza the 2012 version, oft-lackadaisical and showing marked aggression from beyond the arc? I can honestly say I have no earthly idea. The answer is likely somewhere in the middle.
No matter, one thing is abundantly clear: Whichever team signs Ariza better have a talented point guard. Ariza's 180 corner threes, most on the Wizards, were very much a byproduct of John Wall's innate ability to find teammates in those spots. No one is better than Wall at identifying an open man in the corner.
Either way, the race for Contract Ariza should be fun. Just know Daryl Morey probably isn't joining the party.
Every Restricted Free Agent Ever
Like most every major professional sports league, the NBA's collective bargaining agreement actively disincentivizes teams from signing restricted free agents. Incumbent teams have 72 hours to decide whether or not to match an offer sheet. While less cumbersome than the week-long wait in the previous CBA, three days is nonetheless excruciating during a critical window.
Negotiations for top-tier players are handled during the NBA's moratorium period, during which no "official" league business can happen but teams can contact players. Starting at midnight July 1, there is a 24/7 streaming pile of meetings, rumors and agreements in principle. By the time the league officially reopens for business, a majority of the notable free agents are already gone.
So, three days. It often means the difference between landing your top target and having to go to option four, five or six. Agents and players do not wait for a team's first option to fall through unless they absolutely have to.
As such, restricted free agents typically fall into two categories: wildly overpaid or overtly ignored. Most teams are unwilling to sign an offer sheet—and thus put a cap hold on sheet—unless they're mostly sure his incumbent team will not match.
There are exceptions, sure, but that $44 million deal the Pelicans threw Tyreke Evans' way last summer? Zero percent chance he lands that as an unrestricted guy. A player as talented as Nikola Pekovic who plays a scarce position not signing a new contract until mid-August? Zero percent chance that happens if he's unrestricted.
You're either a have or a have not in restricted free agency land. Which only makes the contracts these players land all the more dangerous.
Greg Monroe, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas and Gordon Hayward are the top guys hitting that mark this summer, and odds are at least one of them will be wildly overpaid. Each have flashed the type of potential that could convince the right team they're worth well into the eight-figure mark per season.
Monroe is a throwback, back-to-the-basket offensive savant whose production is limited by playing next to Andre Drummond and Josh Smith. In the right situation—one that preferably features any offensive spacing whatsoever—Monroe could develop into an All-Star. For now, he's a defensive minus whose counting stats have plateaued since his second season.
Bledsoe remains a better player in theory than practice. The Suns' offense died whenever he played the point and Goran Dragic sat, per NBA Wowy. Bledsoe has improved his jumper, is a better passer than I expected and probably would have performed better had a knee injury not wiped away half his season. It's just at least mildly concerning that Phoenix did not roll over the way many expected when he went out. At the very least, it's confirmation of Dragic's brilliance.
Bledsoe is also not the defensive stopper everyone seems so ready to anoint him as. Opponents averaged 0.918 points per possession against Bledsoe in isolation, putting him in the 33rd percentile of all players, per Synergy Sports. The former Kentucky standout gambles far too much off the ball and still doesn't have elite anticipation skills.
At the same time, he's 24 years old and averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds in his first year as a starter. Dude is gonna get paid.
Thomas' issue is the same as always (his height), which will always be in the back of minds even when he's producing like an All-Star. The diminutive guard had the third-highest PER among point guards this season and has been consistently stellar since coming into the league. The height and defense factors should prevent him from being overpaid, though.
Hayward is an interesting case. People spent their preseason squinting reeeeeal hard and trying to make a comparison to Paul George. Never mind that George is one of the two or three best perimeter defenders in the league, but whatever. None of it panned out anyway. Hayward struggled mightily in his first year as a top offensive option, watching as he set career highs in points, assists and rebounds but career lows on all of his shooting splits.
Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap took a lot of attention. Just not enough to justify a full 10-percent drop from three-point range. Hayward is a smart passer and solid rebounder for a wing player, and he's developed into a fine team defender. It will just be very curious to see an eight-figure number being thrown around for a player who, at his best, may be a third banana.
Welcome to restricted free agency, folks.
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