Sometimes I think NBA GMs are like government beaurocrats in charge of large budgets: they feel like they must spend the money they have. Every year, there are at least a dozen contracts that leave almost everyone scratching their head. One has to think that even the GM signing the ink cannot possibly believe this is a good idea.
Let's look at some transactions in the $10+ million per year range from this season (contracts aren't signed until the 10th but these are more or less "official"):
- Someone, somewhere, will give Brandon Jennings $45-$50 million for four years. This is despite the fact that he's never had a FG%, eFG%, or TS% average or above in 4 years, and has only once (barely) been average or above at assists. So, he's a point guard that doesn't pass that well and shoots poorly. And he's neither good nor bad at rebounding, turnovers, blocks, or steals. One wonders what the $11-12 million per year is for? Potential? You can buy potential every year at the draft for a fraction of the price.
- The Pacers have given David West 3 years, $36 million. West has never been a bad player, but he's never been a superstar either, and he'll turn 33 before the season starts.
- The Pistons have signed Josh Smith to 4 years, $56 million. What's maddening about this is that he just came off by far his worst season with a very high turnover rate and very low shooting efficiency, and the Pistons are going to either ask him to play small forward (despite the fact that he's an awful outside shooter), or take minutes away from Andre Drummond (who had a rookie season comparable to Dwight Howard's). Both are very bad ideas.
- Al Jefferson has agreed to a 3 year, $41 million dollar deal with the Charlotte Bobcats. Jefferson has a lot of great upfakes and post moves but somehow at the end of the day he doesn't actually score any more effectively than other centers (or PFs), and is a poor defender.
The thing that strikes me most about these contracts is that they are all made by teams using the rest of their cap room. So, it's their last big move. Any "last big move" that a team makes should be one that makes the leap from loser to winner, or also-ran to contender (or will do so in the future). For instance, if the Bobcats could have signed Dwight, that would have been a great move because obviously it enables future contention, even though it isn't enough yet. But signing Al Jefferson simply does not move their needle this year or any future year.
In fact, the thing is, even if we completely abandon the tenets of Wins Produced here, and use "conventional wisdom" to evaluate these signings, does anyone, anywhere, think that any of these deals are the kind that turn losers into winners? Or winners into champions? And if they aren't doing those things, why are GMs making these moves?
One answer, which Dave Berri sent in email the other day, is that GMs feel like they must do something:
Clearly the contract for Josh Smith seems less than optimal. But here is a question:
What else should Joe Dumars have done this summer?
He can't do nothing. He needs to make the playoffs in 2014 or he is fired. And if he does nothing that is not going to happen (as the last few years demonstrated). A top free agent like Iguodala is not coming to Detroit. So what options did Dumars have after the draft?
And there is a point. The GMs of many teams have to feel like "they can't do nothing". And for the 6-7 teams that have cap room, but where Dwight Howard isn't walking through that door, they spend foolish superstar money on players that aren't stars in an attempt to "do something" to move the needle.
Interestingly, Shawn Furyan answers Dave's other question:
The answer: It sucks, how helpless you end up when you're constantly shooting yourself in the foot. There is not a satisfactory answer to what Joe Dumars should have done to preserve his job.
This is true. Dumars didn't have to sign Ben Gordon, Charlie Villenueva, Rip Hamilton, or Tayshaun Prince to bloated long-term deals. In those years from 2005-2008, Dumars had plenty of championship reputation to fall back on that would have allowed him to spend that money more wisely.
Which brings me to my next point: you have to spend some money. There is, after all, a minimum salary in the NBA (historically it was 80% of the cap, now it is 90%). So, since you have to spend your cap space, aren't these deals better?
Hell no. The real reason the "OKC model" works has squadoosh to do with tanking. It's all about collecting assets. And the prime examples were Presti's willingness to use his cap room to absorb bad contracts, in exchange for having the pot sweetened with draft picks or young players. Remember this Steve Kerr tirade?
I made one of the worst trades in NBA history. I traded Kurt Thomas and two first round picks to Seattle for nothing, to save 16 million dollars for our organization. Where was the NBA then to veto that trade for basketball reasons?
Or, consider this trade from this year:
The Warriors agreed on a trade that will send Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and Brandon Rush to the Jazz. Golden State gets guard Kevin Murphy while giving the Jazz first round picks in 2014 and 2017 as well as two second-round picks.
The Jazz traded one player for 4 draft picks, a good sharp-shooting wing (Rush) whose salary is cheap, and two players that Golden State couldn't afford to pay. Those two expiring contracts, by the way, will probably be valuable trade chips in February or March. This is the perfect use of cap space in a year where any player they could have signed would not have moved the needle to contention anyway. THAT'S how you spend your cap space when Dwight Howard isn't knocking on your door. So much better than tying your franchise to an overrated player for 4 years.