The Third-Year Decision: What Will These NBA Teams Do With Their Still-Developing Prospects?
These days, fewer and fewer NBA decisions are rubber-stamp jobs. Teams have become more careful on the fringes of the salary cap under the post-lockout collective bargaining agreement. That’s especially true for the teams that need to be choosy in picking up third- and fourth-year post-lockout options on their first-round picks; those fourth-year options carry giant year-over-year raises ranging from 26 percent for the top pick all the way to 80 percent for the bottom six picks. Some teams in the new NBA of flexibility and short contracts have so much cap room they can swallow those options without a care — just in case disappointing Year 4 guy figures it out.
But for teams with less projected cap space and bigger free-agency dreams, every dollar draws scrutiny. These are a few of the thorny fourth-year option cases across the 2012 draft board.
Austin Rivers, New Orleans Pelicans
Rivers, the no. 10 pick and an NBA blue blood, has basically been a disaster; his rookie season was one of the worst ever among guys who actually played real minutes. He improved just about every facet of his game in Year 2, but he still barely cracked 40 percent from the floor, struggled to finish at the rim, bricked away midrange shots opponents happily gave him, and looked off open shooters in favor of wild floaters.
Rivers would earn $3.1 million in 2015-16, about the equivalent of the taxpayer midlevel exception, if the Pellies pick up that option. That doesn’t sound like much, but it could limit New Orleans’s ability to pivot into being a major cap room team if Omer Asik bolts in free agency.
The Pelicans won’t have much cap flexibility as long as they keep Asik’s $12 million cap hold on the books, and they may need to do that in order to keep his Bird Rights — and the right to go over the cap in re-signing him — in a frothy big-man market. They could in theory re-sign him with cap room, but Rivers’s $3.1 million might torpedo that plan. And if Asik jumps ship, Rivers’s option could be the difference between major cap room and sub–$10 million room.
The Pelicans could also stay over the cap, which would put the midlevel exception in play, but they don’t need Rivers’s contract to do that.
In the chaos of LeBron James Day, the Pelicans considered both trading Rivers and waiving him with the stretch provision to make sure they had enough room to complete the Asik deal with Houston. To be clear: Stretching Rivers was an absolute last resort, and New Orleans demanded real assets for him in trade talks, per several league sources.1
Rivers has clear NBA skills, and he piled up some big numbers when Monty Williams unleashed him in New Orleans’s last 10 games. Anthony Davis sat several of those games due to injury, and Rivers had to work in wretched lineups featuring combinations of Al-Farouq Aminu, Jeff Withey, Darius Miller, Luke Babbitt, and Anthony Morrow. But those games had the air of meaningless pickup joints, and the big numbers came with a few nights of inefficient Rivers chucking.
Rivers is a crafty ball handler who can get into the lane, particularly with a vicious right-to-left crossover and Eurostep — it’s just that nothing good happens when he gets there. Rivers isn’t an explosive leaper, and he struggles to finish through rotating big men at the basket. He tries to finish over and around them with crazy floaters and layups, many of which are semi-blind prayers hurled off the backboard. Rivers shot just 48.6 percent from the restricted area last season, the third-worst mark among 119 guards who attempted at least 75 such shots, per NBA.com.
And he sure as hell isn’t passing the ball in there. Rivers assisted on just 19.3 percent of New Orleans’s baskets while on the floor last season, a number we’d expect from a scoring wing with decent passing skills, and not a guy who entered the league with ambitions of playing point guard. Rivers shared a lot of his minutes with Tyreke Evans and Brian Roberts, but he also ran the show a bit, especially toward the end of the season. You could make a fun slideshow of Rivers hoisting hopeless layups while Morrow stands with his arms raised, pleading for the ball, in Rivers’s direct line of sight.
Rivers has also shot horribly from midrange, which is why opponents muck up the Pelicans’ spacing by ducking way under screens on Rivers pick-and-rolls:
The driving did pay off in one way: Rivers got to the line nearly five times per 36 minutes, a strong number, and a big jump over his rookie season. He’s a pesky on-ball defender with the length to guard wing players, and he very quietly hit 49 percent of his spot-up 3-pointers last season. Rivers doesn’t have gravity off the ball yet — guys sag off him without much worry — but if he keeps shooting the deep ball like that, he’ll (slowly) earn it.
Rivers has passing vision, and he’ll probably start using it more once he finally realizes he’s not the mega-scorer he wishes to be.
This is a really tough call for the Pelicans, especially since the Williams and Rivers families are close.
Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard, Portland Trail Blazers
Portland’s cap situation is among the hardest to project, with three starters — LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez — all heading into free agency. They could stay over the cap, or suddenly find themselves with more than $30 million in space.
Aldridge is the only indispensable player among those three, and he has already said he plans to sign a five-year contract with Portland after this season. The Blazers need his Bird Rights to go the full five years on that deal, and that means Aldridge’s massive $20.6 million cap hold has to sit on their books, eating into their potential cap room.
And there’s the rub: Portland could open up max-level cap room in a jiffy, even with that Aldridge hold, by renouncing both Matthews and Lopez — and declining the option on one of the Robinson/Leonard duo. That’s a scenario Portland would likely want to keep in play; one of these guys is probably a goner.
Robinson needs to be most wary of the ax, if only because his $4.66 million option is about $1.6 million higher than Leonard’s. That could be the difference in Portland carving out space for a max-level offer.2
Robinson is strictly a power forward, and any backup at that spot has a pretty low minutes ceiling behind Aldridge. Robinson and Aldridge shared the floor some last season, and Robinson’s furious rolls to the rim mesh well with Aldridge’s midrange game. But Aldridge prefers to play alongside a true center, even if smaller lineups have generally done well going back a half-decade.
League rules also allow the Blazers to decline Robinson’s option next month, but still offer him any salary in free agency this summer up to the exact option number of $4.66 million. If Robinson can’t find a bigger offer on the open market, Portland would have a shot to bring him back that way. Chris Kaman’s partially guaranteed deal for 2014-15 also provides the Blazers a nice hedge in case they decline the option on either young big.
Both Robinson and Leonard are total NBA unknowns, and Leonard lost nearly all of his minutes last season to Robinson, Lopez, and Joel Freeland. But we can be certain Robinson has at least one plus NBA skill: He might be the fastest power forward in the league, excluding small-ball combo forwards like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Dude is a lightning bolt running the floor, crashing the offensive glass, and bull-rushing his way to the rim on the pick-and-roll.
He’s so anxious to get near the basket for dunks that he doesn’t even really set screens; he moves into the general area where a big man interested in setting a pick might do so, and then, before coming to a full stop, veers 90 degrees on a hard line to the rim. That technique, known as slipping picks, is effective for a speedster like Robinson — Amar’e Stoudemire made a living off it early in his career — but it’s also the M.O. of someone who views the pick-and-roll solely as a path toward scoring.
Robinson rarely sets picks that help his point guards, and when they pass him the ball on the roll, he’s going up with it — even if he encounters multiple help defenders at the basket and sees open shooters spotted up around him.
Robinson’s a rugged player, but it’s a selfish kind of ruggedness. There might not be a single player who chases offensive rebounds with the same aggression; Robinson gets primed before a teammate releases a shot, like a dog ready to pursue a thrown Frisbee. He rebounded 13 percent of Portland’s misses, a monster number, but he immediately pogo-sticked into no-chance putbacks instead of resetting things. He’s also been too eager to show off a jumper that isn’t ready for public consumption.
Robinson hasn’t played with the same maniacal effort on defense, and he’s so undersize that he has no chance against post-up bullies. But defense is where his speed should serve him best. Robinson should be like a situational relief pitcher against stretch power forwards who love to pick-and-pop — the Ryan Anderson and Channing Frye types. There are very few bigs fast enough to leap out at a point guard darting around an Anderson or Frye screen, wall off that point guard’s dribbling path, and scurry back to that Anderson or Frye type before he can launch an open jumper. Robinson has the wheels for that.
That speed, plus his general motor and explosiveness, deserves a continued look from someone.
Leonard is tall, which is nice, but he hasn’t been able to stay on the floor much. You hear whispers of Leonard dominating offseason workouts against more accomplished NBA players, but it doesn’t matter until it translates into games.
The problems have mostly come on defense, where Leonard has looked overwhelmed trying to multitask at NBA speed. He gets turned around trying to contain ball handlers on the pick-and-roll, and I mean that literally: There are possessions on which Leonard ends up with his back to the ball, confused as to where it is and what is happening. He has happy feet, he’s super-vulnerable to any fake, and he fouls at an astronomical rate in desperate attempts to reach out and stop a play that has gotten beyond his grasp. Leonard averaged five fouls per 36 minutes as a rookie, and 7.7 last season, and you just can’t play in the league that way.
The Blazers are in the process of teaching Leonard and Freeland the Roy Hibbert art of verticality, but it will take lots of repetition to get the timing down.
Leonard improved his rebounding in limited minutes last season after failing to box anyone out as a rookie. He’s still just 22 and arrived in the NBA with only one year of experience against high-level competition. He has a nice midrange touch, and the Blazers have tried to turn him into a floor-spacer who drags a big-man defender away from the rim and leaves the paint for Aldridge, Robinson, and others. They’ve even run honest-to-god pindown plays for him:
He’s a good passer, nimble for a true seven-footer, and he’s explosive around the basket when he has space to get revved up; he did shoot 54.5 percent from the floor as a rookie, after all. But experiments with the 3-pointer have yielded zippo, and he just hasn’t defended well enough to stay on the floor.
If the salaries were equal, this would be an interesting choice: raw size against raw speed. But the salaries aren’t equal, so Leonard should be more optimistic about renewing his lease in Portland for another year.
The Safe Bets in Orlando: Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson
The Magic will add some fat to their cap number if they extend Nikola Vucevic, but they can still keep both of these guys without even bothering to open a spreadsheet.
Harkless especially, even though his $2.89 million option is about $500,000 higher than Nicholson’s. Harkless is still a baby, barely 21, and he showed enough progress last season that the Magic still see him as a potential long-term piece. He started last season as a nice cutter who looked terrified to dribble or shoot when he got the ball on the perimeter. Nobody bothered defending him. By the end of the season, he was canning open 3s — he hit 38 percent for the year — and attacking confidently off the bounce when the ball swung his way.
He projects as a solid defender capable of guarding both wing positions, though he’s still vulnerable to the occasional backdoor cut when he fixates on the ball.
If the Magic feel any squeeze at all, Nicholson would be the more likely victim. He’s already 24, and he just hasn’t been able to keep up with NBA power forwards on defense. He’s not big enough to defend centers or protect the rim, and he rarely gets to the line — in part because he got so jumper-happy on offense last season.
But Nicholson has a soft touch from the post, and if he can ever expand his 3-point range beyond the corners, he’ll have a role in the NBA. The Magic might as well give it another year, even if Nicholson will have to fight harder for scraps of playing time.