By Brian Spencer
Good contracts are getting harder and harder to come by in today’s NBA, but they’re still out there. And I’m not talking about rookie deals, which are mostly done on scale and often provide great value for those teams lucky enough to hit on their pick. For the purposes of this piece, which serves as the sister companion to last week’s “Top Eight Cases of Buyer’s Remorse“, I’ve omitted all rookie deals and contracts that expire in the next season or two, and exclusively focused on eight of the top bang-for-your-buck contracts in the NBA.
Rajon Rondo, PG, Boston Celtics
There was a time last summer when Danny Ainge and Celtics brass toyed with the notion that Rajon Rondo, their 23-year-old point guard who’d just triple-doubled three times during the playoffs (and nearly did it another five or six times), was an expendable asset. A trade chip. Lucky for them, teams like the Detroit Pistons didn’t bite on the reported overtures coming from Boston, and Rondo stayed put. I’d now argue that once this season is up, and once that championship clock keeps ticking ever faster on the KG-Allen-Pierce era, Rondo will be the most valuable long-term asset the Celtics have.
And they’ll have him locked up at the right price.
After the book closes on this 2009-10 season, Rondo stands to make $55 million over the next five seasons, a span which, if it follows his career trajectory so far, should see him challenge for perennial All-Star status and blossom into one of the NBA’s elite players at the point. Actually, he’s sort of already there having elevated his game to new heights in this his fourth season out of Kentucky. His per-game averages in points (14.1), field-goals (53%), assists (9.6), and steals (2.5) are all career bests; take him out of the lineup, and you’re going to see the Celtics flounder more than, perhaps, they’ve floundered sans KG. He’s that valuable, and that he’ll make an average of just $11 million during his youthful prime is a steal for the Celtics.
Paul Millsap, F, Utah Jazz
A lot was made of the Portland Trail Blazers’ “toxic” contract offer to Millsap last summer during his restricted free agency. The Jazz, of course, had the right to match any offer no matter how big it was or how much it put them over the cap, but many thought they’d relent and allow their promising 24-year-old big man to walk. They couldn’t possibly decide to pay Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, and Millsap an excess of $9 – $16 million each, at least so the Blazers’ hopes went.
Well, they obviously did, and though they’re now left scrambling to ease the luxury-tax burden of their spending spree, in the long run Millsap should prove worth the upfront investment. Unfortunately, it probably won’t bear fruit this season as long as Boozer’s around, but barring a change of financial heart, the latter will be selling his services to the highest bidder this summer, and that bidder won’t be Utah. Enter Millsap, who in 38 games as a starter last season averaged 16 points, 10.3 boards, 2.4 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1 block per; big numbers for a guy who slipped to the middle of the second round on draft day in ’06 due to ‘tweener concerns (he’s listed at 6-8).
We’ll see if he can replicate that production over the course of a full 82-game season as a starter, but in all likelihood we’ll find out next year… the first of three remaining seasons in which he’ll collect a modest total of $20 million.
Thabo Sefolosha, GF, Oklahoma City Thunder
The traditional preamble every time we’ve brought up Sefolosha over the past, oh, 3 years is that he’s an underrated gem in this league and one of our favorite players with untapped potential. Well, young Thabo is now a ripe 25 years old, in his fourth NBA season, and doesn’t look like he’ll ever be a dynamic scorer or shutdown defender. That’s fine, I’m not sure that he needs to be either one to make a sizable impact for the fledgling Thunder franchise.
We’ve said it something like 100 times, and I’ll say it once more: every team could use a Sefolosha (or two) on their roster. At a long 6-7, the Swiss Army Knife can lineup as a two or three, play above-average man defense on some of the league’s most deadly shooters, score opportunistic buckets, and cause turnovers. I’ve seen him get hot from the field on occasion, but those efforts have been few and far between and will continue to be with Durant, Westbrook, Green, & Co. dominating the offense.
Sefolosha is not a star, never will be, but he’s a multi-talented glue guy who plays hard and knows his role. If this team continues transforming itself into a Western Conference power, and works their way into the NBA Finals before the remaining 4 years and $13.8 million are up on Sefolosha’s bargain-basement deal, you can book him right now as a guy who makes a crucial play–a contested jumper, a steal, a block, something–to seal a game in the Finals.
Five more cases of NBA buyer’s delight after the break…
Danny Granger, F, Indiana Pacers
Look up “sub-mediocrity” in this year’s edition of the NBA dictionary and you’ll see the Indiana Pacers somewhere in there. Ever since the Malice at the Palace, this franchise seems to have been stuck somewhere between reverse and neutral, and in all likelihood will finish below .500 for the fourth straight season (they finished an even 41-41 in 05-06). The immediate future doesn’t look much more promising, either, and with each passing season in which coach Jim O’Brien is forced to run his uptempo system with mostly mismatched parts, the odds of this team achieving some degree of consistency in the win column under his direction dwindle further and further.
But, at least they have Danny Granger, the face of their franchise and one of most underrated superstars in this league, locked up at very reasonable salary. During this season and the next four, Granger stands to make roughly $60 million, which averages out to about $12 million. He’ll make less than Luol Deng, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala… all fine players in their own right but not promising anything close to Granger’s talent and upside.
You of course want to see him translate his semi-bawdy stats into Pacers wins, and his numbers are down some this year as he’s battled various ailments. But even with a 3 percentage-point dip in his field-goal shooting through 28 games (44% last year vs. 41%), he’s still averaging 23.6 points, 5.7 boards, 2.6 assists, 2.9 triples, 1.5 steals, and 1 block per.
Trevor Ariza, GF, Houston Rockets
Here’s where things get a little fuzzier and up for debate. Everybody saw what Ariza did for the Lakers last season during their title run, but with his contract up and Ron Artest heavily pitching his services, the team decided it was better off gambling on Artest than committing to a long-term deal for Ariza, who by the way is 6 years younger than his replacement. I get the decision, really do, especially since that was the first season Ariza had ever lasted the entire 82-game season, plus playoffs. They want to win now (and keep Artest off Kobe in the playoffs).
So far Ariza has been good, not great, in his first year with the Houston Rockets, averaging 15.4 points (1.8 triples), 5.5 boards, 3.7 assists, and 1.7 steals per–all career highs, though that’s somewhat natural since he’s averaging just over 38 minutes a night, compared to his 22 minutes a night career average. What’s disappointing, though, is the shot selection: he’s jacking up 6 three-point attempts per (5th highest in the league) and hitting them at a poor 30% clip, and that’s helped drag his overall shooting percentage down to a putrid 37%. Ariza is also amongst the league leaders in turnovers at 2.5.
But… this is a major adjustment period for the young man. He may not be the so-called “featured guy” on the equal-opportunity Rockets, but he’s being asked to do more (and play more) than he has at any point in his 6-year career, and you get the sense he’s pressing and trying to live up to the high expectations that accompanied his arrival. Give him some time; let’s not forget that he’s still only 24 years old, the fourth-youngest player on Houston’s roster. That 5-year, $33 million contract he got last summer is going to look really nice before too long.
Andrea Bargnani, F, Toronto Raptors
For the record, I’m no Bargnani apologist, but do feel that he takes more criticism than he deserves. I know, I know… he’s soft for a 7-footer, he’s a pushover on defense, he’s inconsistent on offense, etc. All valid points, but I think there’s still a ton of upside here and room for growth. The first overall pick of the ’06 draft has made steady, consistent improvements across the board in each successive year he’s been in the league, and it’s foolish to think the value of a guy with his unique skillset, a guy who by the way most knew would take some time to adjust, won’t eventually exceed the 5 years and $50 million extension that kicks in next season.
Just throwing this out there; I’m not saying Bargnani is or ever will be the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki, but there are similarities in their respective games and physical build, and the numbers each posted in their fourth NBA season aren’t that far off:
Advantage, clearly, to Nowitzki… but again, there are some similarities here, and we’re talking about a comparison to a future Hall of Famer; forget Bargnani, few 7-footers favorably measure up next to Dirk. But at $50 million over the next 5 years, when Bargs will still be 29 years old? Whether he’s still with the Raptors by then or not, somebody’s going to be getting their money’s worth.
Louis Williams, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
I’m a little worried about Sweet Lou Williams. The season began with promise: this was his time, his chance to, for the first time ever, lead the 76ers as its starting point guard of the present and future. The wins didn’t come, but on a personal level, he got off to a strong start in November, averaging 16.6 points (46% FG), 5.1 assists, 3 boards, and 1.7 steals in 11 games, but then came a broken jaw. Then came Allen Iverson. Then came controversy. The losses continued piling up, and judging by the posts on his Twitter account, it’s all started getting into his head and perhaps damaged his confidence.
After this Iverson silliness is over and done with, though, Williams and the Sixers will still have three full seasons to make this work and properly utilize his considerable talents. (Assuming he’s not dealt before then, which could happen with reports that everybody on the team, outside of Iverson of course, is on the block.) He’ll make about $18 million during that span, a bargain price for a 23 year old who has the talent to be a solid, if not All-Star-caliber starter.
Al Jefferson, FC, Minnesota Timberwolves
For every person who thinks this is a good deal for the T’Wolves, another will say it’s a terrible one; this Al Jefferson is a surprisingly polarizing players amongst our peers. However you feel about the contract, this kid deserves to play for a good team; he’s certainly paid his dues after five, going on six, miserable NBA seasons spent with franchises in a miserable state. The 2009-10 T’Wolves are no different, and that he’s still battling his way back to 100% from last year’s torn ACL hasn’t made things any easier on him. At some point, season upon season of overwhelming losses wears on one’s psyche, and there have already been signs this year that the stoic trooper is about to crack.
Jefferson will make $42 million over the next 3 years, no small pricetag by any means but not an unreasonable number for arguably the league’s most fluid offensive player in the post. Post defense is, admittedly, an entirely different story. I defy anyone to focus on Jefferson for one full game and to not leave impressed by his silky repertoire of spins, pivots, and pump fakes on the blocks; at times it’s almost like watching a figure skater in the middle of a layback. (Yes, I looked that term up.)
So, please David Kahn, figure this thing out. Find a legitimate center to pair with Jefferson in the post, even if that means moving Kevin Love to the bench. Get some more talent in here, figure out the Ricky Rubio thing, don’t waste any more years of Jefferson’s NBA life. And if you can’t do that, well, at least his contract makes him an attainable, appealing, reasonably priced trade chip to dangle.