Who Slipped Through the Offseason Cracks?
The 2013 offseason has surprised those who routinely derided heretofore spendthrift NBA general managers. Indeed, this July has revealed that a number of players appear to have far lower value around the league than might have been anticipated. Has the league correctly valued these players, or will time prove they should have gleaned more lucrative compensation?
After years of bouncing from team to team, Robinson finally looked ready to cash in after some spectacular playoff moments with the Chicago Bulls. His performance last year might have had him expecting at least a multi-year deal for the mid-level exception, but Robinson instead sweated out free agency before inking a two-year, $4.1 million deal with the Denver Nuggets. This was the only multi-year offer Robinson was reported to have received.
Perhaps Robinson’s value was so low because his performance was perceived to be a fluke? Casual fans could be forgiven for thinking so, given that Robinson has generally toiled out of the limelight anywhere he has gotten major minutes. Also, Robinson just turned 29 years old, which indicates last year may have been his peak. However, the former University of Washington star has put up very similar numbers in previous stops, with only a lower turnover rate a particularly noteworthy improvement from his 2011-12 season with the Golden State Warriors.
Instead, perhaps the issue is that Robinson’s output, while consistent, is not all that valuable for most teams. As Brandon Jennings found to his dismay before his recent deal with the Detroit Pistons, point guard may be the NBA’s deepest position. Given his poor defense, his relative lack of passing vision and the league-wide depth, Robinson isn’t a starter. Most teams have little need to pay much more than a few million for a backup point when a quality starter projects to play most of the minutes. And, Robinson’s height prevents him from guarding shooting guards.
All told, Robinson’s skills were uniquely suited for a Bulls team that needed shot creation but couldn’t afford to pay much for it with Derrick Rose’s huge salary sitting on the bench. In fact, even in Denver it is difficult to see where the former dunk champion fits in, as fellow diminutive point guard Ty Lawson will play big minutes and Andre Miller also figures to play quite a bit.
Mexican native Gustavo Ayon did not make his NBA debut until age 26 with the New Orleans Hornets, but immediately proved worthy of minutes as a third big man for Monty Williams’ club. He posted a PER of 16.7 in 2011-12 for an overachieving squad, but then was traded to the Orlando Magic in a sign-and-trade for Ryan Anderson. In Orlando, his performance cratered, as his block percentage was halved and his turnover rate skyrocketed. Ayon was traded to Milwaukee in the J.J. Redick/Tobias Harris trade, and recovered to roughly his New Orleans form in limited minutes thereafter.* Rather than guarantee Ayon’s very reasonable $1.5 million salary for 2013-14 (with a $1.9 million qualifying offer for the following year), the Bucks released him.
*With the exception of free throws. Ayon somehow shot 1-12 from the charity stripe in Milwaukee. Another noteworthy small sample-size statistic: Milwaukee was 25.1 points per 100 possessions better with Ayon on the court during his 163 minutes in Brewtown.
Ayon was claimed off waivers by the Atlanta Hawks in a solid value play, and will battle European signee Pero Antic for minutes as the fourth big man.* Given Ayon’s non-Orlando history, he seems like a very solid bet to outperform his relatively small salary. In fact, it is likely that he will outplay his Milwaukee replacement Zaza Pachulia, who signed for three years, $15 million.
*One report indicated the acquisitions of Ayon and Antic augur that Lucas Nogueira will remain overseas for another year. This is an interesting decision for the Hawks. Bebe clearly needs to get stronger. He would benefit immensely from an NBA conditioning program compared to Spain, where lifting is generally not a priority. On the other hand, allowing him to develop in Spain will let the Hawks to reap more of the 20-year-old’s prime years when he is still locked into a relatively piddling rookie scale contract.
After finishing out his previous contract with the Utah Jazz, Williams too hoped to reach a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal as a potential starter. He shoots 38 percent on threes in his sleep and is money from the line, but doesn’t offer much else at this stage.
Williams suffers from many of the same problems as Robinson, despite the fact he is considered far superior in the locker room. Teams simply are not willing to pay that much for point guards who will not start, and few teams had an opening at the position in any event.
Williams’ performance last year indicates that he is much better off the ball at this stage in his career, as a return to the point saw his turnover ratio spike to a near career-high level. Despite the fact he was backed up by Earl Watson and Jamaal Tinsley, the Jazz were no better when he was on the court. Williams’ best years came in Cleveland with LeBron James, and his declining quickness means he is more suited than ever to playing with a ball-dominant wing player. Given these weaknesses, his lack of offers above the minimum is quite understandable.
As essentially the No. 2 pick in the 2006 NBA Draft*, Thomas will always hold a fascination for some observers.
Although he was amnestied this summer by the Charlotte Bobcats, it is worth noting that he played at a level befitting the $8 million per year average annual value of his contract in 2010-11. Before missing the final 41 games with a torn meniscus in his left knee, he compiled an 18.2 PER while the Bobcats were 5.1 points/100 better on defense when he was on the court.
He then suffered one of the largest in-prime dropoffs in history, sinking to a 9 PER the last two seasons and reaching a nadir as one of the worst players in the NBA. Last year, Thomas played only 26 games as the result of a torn calf, knee bruise and general malaise leading to a string of DNP-CDs. A once explosive athlete, 112 of Thomas’ 136 shots were jumpers. Although it was a small sample size, he was also one of the league’s very worst isolation defenders. Plus, his offensive rebound rate was about half his career average these last two years. All of these statistics indicate a sheer lack of effort on his part. Charlotte’s decision to amnesty the last two years of his deal was a no-brainer.
*Technically he was drafted No. 4, but the Chicago Bulls had the No. 2 pick and he was the player they wanted before they smartly consummated a trade with Portland to take him at No. 4 and reduce the salary they would owe him. This cannot have sat well with the perpetually disgruntled Thomas.
While Thomas’ lassitude was certainly quite damning, the small silver lining is the possibility that he could rediscover enough effort to make him an effective player. This year is only Thomas’ age-27 season, and Charlotte’s culture under deposed coach Mike Dunlap was not particularly conducive to getting the most out of the surly LSU product. All of these are reasons to think that Thomas might provide productive play off the bench at the power forward spot. Now that he has cleared waivers, he could have Andray Blatche-like upside for a contender. Although he likely does not deserve a deal for more than the minimum, a team with a strong enough culture to withstand his moods should be happy to offer him a deal at that price.
Millsap’s two-year, $19 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks raised many an observer’s eyebrows due to its brevity. After all, Millsap has provided excellent scoring and rebounding for the Utah Jazz since they stole him in the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft.
Millsap’s smaller than expected contract could be due to two issues. The first is the growing realization around the league that it is difficult to win with offense-only big men. While Millsap is nowhere near as bad on that end as fellow Utah evacuee Al Jefferson, his average quickness and lack of shot blocking renders him a minor liability on help defense. The Jazz were 2.5 points/100 worse defensively with him on the court in 2012-13, and 3.4 worse the previous year.*
*Granted, some of this is due to the fact he was often replaced by Derrick Favors and paired with Jefferson in the starting lineup.
And, while Millsap has generally made mincemeat of the criticism that he was undersized throughout his career, the fact remains that short power forwards generally do not age well. Millsap is a good bet to maintain a decent facsimile of his recent production the next two years, but he turns 29 in February. Considering his defense at power forward, Millsap is worth his $9.5 million annual salary right now. But longer than a two-year deal at that annual value would have been a mistake.
Robinson was the No. 5 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, and was projected to go as high as No. 2. Only a year later, Robinson has been traded away twice, most recently as salary cap flotsam to the Portland Trail Blazers to facilitate the Houston Rockets’ signing of Dwight Howard. He is slated to backup LaMarcus Aldridge in the Rose City, but the question remains whether his last two teams have undervalued him.
After seeing Robinson in person at summer league, I believe the answer is no. Robinson is a fantastic rebounder, but he is below average at the other big man skills. After his trade to the Rockets, I noted that his major problem was finishing around the rim. Unfortunately he continued to misfire in Las Vegas, as his finishes devolved into an amalgam of strips, blocks, needless double-pumps and flat out bricks inside. Unless Robinson can improve his interior shooting, he will remain an end of the bench energy rebounder.
Indeed, while it is possible that Kostas Papanikolaou (for whom Robinson was traded) may never play in the NBA, he could well be the better player if he ever comes over.