“Deserve” is a funny word when it comes to NBA contracts, loaded as it is with disparate perspectives and biases, from those who believe players to be worth every penny to those for whom no game could ever warrant eight-figure fetches.
Based on both their bevy of suitors and their undeniable basketball potential, four of this year’s most sought-after restricted free agents—Gordon Hayward, Eric Bledsoe, Chandler Parsons and Greg Monroe—seem most ripest for future hindsight.
There’s a chance all of them could eventually receive max offer sheets. Question is, which one most deserves it?
All four are between the ages of 23 and 25. All four boast All-Star upside. All four are good enough to push otherwise good teams straight into the realm of contention.
Then again, all four entail their fair share of weaknesses. All four should be second scoring options at best—a fact that, until recently, might prevent a max offer outright.
More importantly, none of them deserve it. At least how things stand right now.
There’s one, however, for whom that judgment stands to change most quickly.
Looking at the quartet’s production for 2013-14 season, it’s easy to see why they’ve attracted so much attention:
|Player||Age||Points||Rebounds||Assists||TS%||PER||WS / 48|
The more positive advanced stats among these numbers would probably imply that Bledsoe—tops as he is in PER and win shares per 48 minutes—stands as the most immediately valuable asset.
That’s not to say the fourth-year guard from the Phoenix Suns is completely without his basketball baggage; he’s been a bit turnover-prone and has yet to truly master the point guard position. That the latter concern stems, in part, from a rather shaky injury history only adds to Bledsoe’s very real risk factor.
Still, Bledsoe’s rare combination of speed, athleticism and certifiably demonic perimeter defense remain tantalizing enough for any team—including the Milwaukee Bucks, per ESPN’s Marc Stein—to at least consider throwing the financial farm at him.
In fact, Phoenix Suns President Lon Babby, in an interview with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM (h/t ArizonaSports.com’s Adam Green), stated as far back as February that he was prepared to match any and every offer for the former University of Kentucky standout:
I think our answer to that is yes, that we know enough about Eric as a player. Even more importantly, we've lived with him now for almost a year as a person. We like everything about him. Like him as a teammate, like him as a representative of our franchise and everything that he stands for.
That Bledsoe has already proven he can coexist famously with another, purer point guard (Goran Dragic) only bolsters his case further.
In a league more flush than ever with top-tier point guard talent, Bledsoe’s brand of ball-hawking and efficient shot selection (a 58 percent true-shooting percentage is nothing to shake a stick at) has as close to a positional must as you’re likely to find in the NBA.
Here's what Bleacher Report's Josh Martin had to say in a recent column about Hayward's free-agent prospects:
With so many quality swingmen out there, who's going to want to tie up their cap space for Hayward, especially if the Jazz are planning to match under any and all circumstances?
At the end of this process, Utah could wind up simply bidding against itself and Hayward's camp, much like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Nikola Pekovic did last summer. After weeks of quiet negotiations, Pekovic emerged with a five-year, $60 million deal.
Hayward may well extract that much cash from the Jazz. Flawed though he may be, Hayward's still only 24. His best basketball should be well ahead of him. As is, Hayward's blend of size, skill and versatility makes him not just any valuable commodity but one of the most valuable available this summer.
Just not one quite worthy of a max contract.
Of our four candidates, no one is coming off the bigger statistical drop-off than Hayward.
But while his woeful 2013-14 shooting numbers are certainly a cause for some ceiling-fearing concern, let’s not forget Hayward was in the employ of the woeful Utah Jazz, for whom the 6’8” forward was expected to do just about everything.
So much of thriving in the NBA is about system fit. As such, we’ll likely look back on Hayward’s Year 4 slump as the singular hiccup in an otherwise solid—or perhaps even stellar—career.
It’s fair to wonder whether Hayward’s talents are being squandered on a team that, even after lottery picks aplenty, remains years away from conference contention.
All the more reason why two of Hayward’s suitors—the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, per CBS Sports’ Matt Moore—make so much sense, with both being just a piece or two away from making noise in a much weaker East.
That, in turn, might explain the max-level talk surrounding Hayward: He might not be the next Kevin Durant, but his plug-in versatility lends him a unique value any up-and-comer would be wise to explore.
Like Hayward, Parsons is a fluid small-forward best suited for an offense wherein pace and space are of the utmost importance—much like his former (and perhaps future) employer, the Houston Rockets.
Unlike Hayward, Parsons isn’t exactly suited to being the No. 1 or 2 offensive option. And while a more limited role has doubtless proved a boon to his efficiency, it also speaks to just how high Parson’s ceiling actually is.
However, Parsons’ ability as a playmaker (he’s charted better in both average assists and assist percentage in each of his first three seasons) lends him a value the market might not otherwise acknowledge.
His potential suitors, per Yahoo Sports’ Marc Spears, include the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks, each of whom (with the exception of the Wolves) could, under certain circumstances, afford to extend Parsons close to the max
But like most of his big-name restricted peers, such circumstances speak more to the whims and workings of the market than any one-to-one value.
Of the four, Monroe boasts perhaps the steadiest body of statistical work—he’s been a double-double threat since he first stepped foot on an NBA floor and will likely remain as much for the foreseeable future.
Monroe’s game has often been described as “throwback,” a testament to the big man’s fundamental footwork and deft low-post polish.
That, ironically enough, might also be his biggest detriment: Back-to-the-basket 4s aren’t exactly in high demand, after all—especially those whose lack of defensive polish makes him a liability, not just as the power forward slot, but at center as well.
If Monroe were able to mold himself into a reliable defensive linchpin, it’s easy to see how the 25-year-old might one day warrant top tender.
As it stands today, though, it feels as though any team willing to offer Monroe the max would be philosophically stuck in an altogether different era.
Conclusion: Bet on Bled
History is rife with egregious free-agent reaches and salary swings-and-misses, either as mistakes in a vacuum or in the context of an incredibly complex market calculus. Years from now, we’ll no doubt look back at some of the signings from the summer of 2014 with the same sour scrutiny.
Which player most deserves the max?
If the Detroit Pistons inking the middling Jodie Meeks to a three-year, $19.5 million deal, per Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press, proves anything, it's that this summer's market—further weighted as it's bound to be by the doings and dealings of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony—is inflated.
None of our aforementioned four up-and-comers have earned a max contract. Then again, so much of NBA forecasting is about potential over past performance, and gambles over guarantees.
Still, as a simple thought exercise, one player best straddles the nexus between resume, risk-and-reward and a recognition of the NBA’s steady trending towards efficient perimeter play.
Congratulations, Eric Bledsoe. For as nervous as the recent injuries and raw playmaking might make us, yours is a ceiling set to the stratosphere.