Run’d Out Rebel: Anthony Bennett’s Buyout Guarantees His Ignominious No. 1 Status

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Few things in the NBA have been as dispiriting over the past two years as watching Anthony Bennett drift through games like a shadow who may or may not be visible to the other players. The Wolves are in the process of cutting bait on Bennett1 with a $3.6 million buyout, putting in play a scenario in which Bennett ends up the worst no. 1 pick in league history — a status he didn’t ask for and clearly didn’t deserve.

Being the “worst” pick isn’t just about that one player; it’s about the opportunity cost of picking that one player over everyone else, and it’s not as if Bennett’s 2013 draft class has blown the league away. Re-draft today, and it’s plausible — likely, actually — that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert would be the top two picks in some order. They went at nos. 15 and 27, respectively. Cleveland lost value by reaching for Bennett at no. 1, but it wasn’t an insane pick at the time, and none of the reasonable alternatives are going to inspire “what if?” stories for the next 30 years. This is not LaRue Martin over Bob McAdoo, Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, or Sam Bowie (at no. 2, of course) over the G.O.A.T.

But it still hurts. Bennett was so bad as a rookie, injured and fatigued and out of shape, that he was more a thrown-in to the Kevin Love deal than a second no. 1 blue-chipper to pair with Andrew Wiggins. Maybe there is a world in which Wiggins, Thaddeus Young, and filler are enough to snare Love, and Victor Oladipo is a Cavalier. Flip Saunders might scoff, harrumphing that he’d have driven a harder bargain, but we’ll never know. Love for Wiggins alone is a freaking home run, considering the history of superstar trades and Love’s desire to bolt Minny.

We do know that Bennett is done after an even more miserable sophomore year in Minnesota. The Wolves will shave off some of Bennett’s $5.8 million salary for this season, and they clearly couldn’t give Bennett away. They peddled him everywhere, including to teams with cap space to absorb him in exchange for a token top-55-protected second-round pick Minnesota would never see, per several league sources. No one bit. The Wolves probably could have dumped him on Portland or Philadelphia by attaching a second-round pick, and most second-round picks aren’t worth $5.8 million. But Minnesota’s upcoming second-rounders will be high, and if Glen Taylor is willing to eat most of that $5.8 million to preserve the 37th pick, that’s good for the franchise. Knowing Philly, it’d have demanded more than one second-rounder to get him, anyway. Such a deal would have netted a nice trade exception, but a lot of those expire unused.

The league knew Minnesota had 16 guaranteed contracts, one over the maximum roster ceiling, and that it needed to dump someone. But there was another option: keep Bennett, and cut someone else — likely Croatian sharpshooter Damjan Rudez. The roster is only overstocked because Minnesota felt it needed three hardened vets in Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, and Prof. Andre Miller, Ph.D. You really need all three of these dudes? I mean, the world needs Prof. Andre Miller throwing lobs and punking fools in the post, but Prince seems like a luxury — even given Minnesota’s need for wing depth.

Bennett has been an abject disaster, but there’s an interesting player somewhere under the rubble. It seems early, given Bennett’s medical history, to write him off as a sunk cost. The Wolves have a glut of bigs in front of Bennett, but minutes would have emerged for him over the 82-game grind. Garnett will start, but he’s a 20-minute player at this point. Nikola Pekovic is always hurt. Nemanja Bjelica has scorched Europe, but the transition to the NBA is tough for almost every international star who comes over mid-career. Adreian Payne is hoppy and rangy, but it’s unclear if he’s an NBA rotation player. Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng are locks to play big minutes, and Saunders told me in July that the team still wanted to carve out time for Shabazz Muhammad to play some small-ball power forward. The minutes crunch was real, but Bennett would have gotten extended looks if he showed up engaged and ready to play with urgency.

Portland and Philly can still claim him off waivers, though doing so would mean eating his salary. That would leave the Sixers with something like $7 million in cap space,2 and that’s not enough to butt in as a salary dumping ground in every big-money trade conversation. Portland can swallow Bennett and maintain something like $15 million in space — most in the league, and enough to snag some assets in exchange for eating more money down the line. Utah has theoretical cap room, but its roster is almost full, and it’s not touching Bennett, per several league sources.

Claiming Bennett would keep him out of free agency, where he would have his pick among more suitors. Most of those suitors could offer only the minimum salary, and Philly or Portland could trump that with deals at $2 million or $3 million for the 2015-16 season. That amounts to at least double Bennett’s minimum salary, but that difference may not be enough for Bennett to sign somewhere he’s not comfortable.

He would probably be comfortable in Portland, since he knows Jay Triano, a Trail Blazers assistant who is Bennett’s head coach during international tournaments with Team Canada. The Blazers are loaded with young bigs who need minutes, plus a wing who can slide to power forward in Al-Farouq Aminu. They also have 13 guaranteed contracts, and at least two players on non-guaranteed deals — Tim Frazier and Luis Montero — they find at least a bit interesting. They could buy out Mike Miller to make room, but it’s not as if Portland’s roster is bare.

Philly has Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor as cornerstone bigs, and all three of Furkan Aldemir, Richaun Holmes, and Jerami Grant figure to see minutes at power forward. Bennett would get a ton of time there, but if Philly doesn’t claim him off waivers, it’s unclear if Bennett wants to dip his toe into the NBA’s most aggressive rebuilding situation.

As a side note, this is an interesting moment for Philly — especially with Portland slotted alongside the Sixers as a competitor for Bennett. Philly mostly sat out free agency again before signing Kendall Marshall to a four-year deal, with the last three seasons non-guaranteed. Classic Philly. The Sixers used most of their cap space to swallow bad contracts from Sacramento, and the Kings paid them handsomely with a future first-rounder and two pick swaps. Those are nice things. But the Sixers have a ton of picks already, and rival executives are curious about why Philly didn’t take a shot on some young players who signed for cheap. Aminu is at the high end of that market, but why not take a minimum-salaried curiosity like, I dunno, John Jenkins, Jeremy Evans, or Justin Holiday, and lavish him with a three-year, $8 million deal as the cap is set to skyrocket? Philly sniffed around offer sheet possibilities for Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard, sources say, but that’s basic due diligence.

Marshall is a smart signing, and he potentially handed his entire prime to the Sixers on a cheapo four-year deal. But if the Sixers bent a little bit more from their standard non-guaranteed, long-term contracts, they could have outbid the market on some interesting fliers. Bennett represents another chance to do that.

He may hit the minimum market, and if he gets there, watch out for Toronto. Bennett is Canadian, and the Raptors have both a potential roster spot and room for a flier at power forward. All four of Patrick Patterson, Luis Scola, James Johnson, and DeMarre Carroll will see time there, but if someone gets hurt, the Raps could toss a guy like Bennett onto the floor.

Bennett has only one even semi-proven NBA skill: rolling to the basket hard, catching the ball, and doing something productive close to the rim. That’s not always an easy skill when a guy is too short to play center or protect the rim on defense. Any team playing Bennett will need another big to do those things alongside him, and if that big can’t space the floor, Bennett will just run right into him on his cuts to the hoop. A pairing of Bennett and Jonas Valanciunas would cramp spacing.

Two interior-oriented bigs can thrive in tight spacing if they are smart and skilled enough to work the ball through tiny corridors. Bennett has shown no such skill. He has 65 assists in two seasons, and though he improved his passing in Minnesota, he’s a hog when he catches the ball in the paint. He’s an explosive hog, but still a hog. He’ll catch in a crowd, take one dribble, pump fake, pivot, fake again, and toss up something even as shooters stand open around him. Sometimes that something is a lefty dunk that makes you say, “Holy shit, now that looked like a no. 1 pick!” but sometimes it’s a hopeless fling.

Those hopeless flings close to the basket are better than the hopeless flings Bennett lets fly from 20 feet on pick-and-pops. Boil Bennett’s career into one clip, and it would be him screening, lazily fading to the dead zone just inside the 3-point arc, catching a pass, hoisting a moon-shot jumper, and jogging back on defense after it misses. Two minutes later, he’d be jogging back to the bench, another aimless shift in the books. When his trigger finger gets itchy, Bennett looks like the rightful heir to Byron Mullens as the player who goes into his shooting motion most quickly upon catching the ball. It doesn’t matter if there are 15 seconds left on the shot clock and an easy ball reversal is staring him in the face. If Bennett wants to shoot, that baby is going up almost before he even catches the pass. He has a pump-and-drive game in his bag, but he doesn’t use it enough. He cannot resist the lure of a midrange J.

It got worse last season, when an ungodly 47 percent of his shots were long 2s. He hit 33 percent of them and all that chucking kept him away from contact and off the foul line. It was hideous.

He doesn’t have a bad stroke and he showed theoretical 3-point range in college at UNLV. That hasn’t translated to the NBA and an alarming number of Bennett’s quick-release 3s drew air.

Bennett’s defense has been a horror show of mistakes, miscommunications, and shoddy effort. He lives in no-man’s-land. He arrives too late, or too soon, calls out screens as they’re already happening, and can’t sort through all the decisions he has to make in a few seconds.

At times defending the paint, he has looked tentative, and almost sad. He has long arms and some bounce, but he just hasn’t been up for the fight down there consistently enough. He has the mobility to give you a good first effort, but when the scrum starts to boil, Bennett sometimes just wants out. Every advanced metric on his defense, both public and private, is beyond awful, and that matches the eye test.

That’s the first thing Bennett has to change: try hard, every goddamned possession. Watch film of the guys who do that, and get in the required physical condition. This guy is fast, he does have long arms, and he can jump. Those things are interesting. He occasionally switched onto ball handlers on the pick-and-roll, and held his own shadowing those little guys. He’s fast enough to leap out on point guards, and then recover onto Dirk Nowitzki types before they can unleash their own pick-and-pop jumpers. Those things are interesting, too.

And again: He averaged two assists per 36 minutes last season, a huge improvement over his time in Cleveland. He started to learn where his teammates were and where they would be in his next mental snapshot. An Anthony Bennett who rolls like a madman, mixes in more passes, and works on his defense is worth a look as a high-energy rotation reserve — and that’s before factoring in any resurgence in his jump shot.

Getting him on the minimum would be a nice win for someone.

Filed Under: NBA, Anthony Bennett, Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers, 2015 NBA Preview

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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