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The Second Day of NBA Christmas

Post-Lockout Day 2: The Donut Dilemma

Note: This could end up being one of the craziest months in NBA history. To celebrate the signings, trades, rumors, roster shuffling, insanity and (almost definitely) ensuing hilarity/incompetence, I have unleashed a special series called “The 12 Days of NBA Christmas.” Every weekday through December 19 (give or take a day), I will be writing about this unexpected NBA Christmas.

December 5, 2011

In Day 1 of the 12 Days of NBA Christmas, we covered how the lockout somehow didn’t address the whole “Hey fellas, let’s stop overpaying guys who don’t deserve it” problem (which, you know, was the whole reason we had the lockout) and predicted we were headed for three weeks of extravagant contracts that would rank among the dumbest in NBA history (which, you know, defeats the whole purpose of why we had the lockout). If you want to see …

A. The spending ramifications of the new labor deal
B. The wrinkles that should cause teams to spend more money than they expected
C. Which 17 teams will be “spenders” this month

… please, check out Day 1’s column again. For Day 2 and Day 3, we’re zipping through the available free agents and figuring out who will be overpaid, underpaid and properly paid.

Know this: The 2011 free-agent class isn’t sexy at the top like 2010’s class (LeBron, Wade, Dirk, Amar’e) or 2012’s class (Howard, Paul, Williams). It’s more sneaky-hot. Think Anna Paquin in True Blood, or Brody’s wife in Homeland. We’re writing about centers today because, by my calculations, there are six quality NBA centers in the entire league. (For the record, I’m talking about TRUE centers, not power forwards playing out of position like Al Horford, David Lee or Luis Scola.) Coincidentally, three of those six (not counting Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut or Tim Duncan, and yes, I have Andrew Bynum ranked seventh until he starts playing 82 games a year and acting like an adult) happen to be the three most coveted free agents this month.

Most Coveted 1a. Marc Gasol
Most Coveted 1b. Tyson Chandler
Most Coveted 1c. Nene

Because that’s the case, DeAndre Jordan creeps into the second level of “top” 2011 free agents for the same reason that Saab lingered in the relative proximity of BMW and Mercedes for all those years even though it was an inferior car: People overpaid for Saabs because they wanted a European car and couldn’t afford a BMW or Mercedes, just like a team will overpay for Jordan because they didn’t get Gasol, Chandler or Nene. Here’s what Level 2 looks like:

4. David West
5. Arron Afflalo (restricted)
6. DeAndre Jordan (restricted)
7. Thaddeus Young (restricted)

Important note: I like DeAndre Jordan!!! Trust me, I’m a Clippers season-ticket holder — I watched that dude transform himself into a Kendrick Perkins-type starter for the right contender. The numbers back it up.

Jordan, age 22 (2010-11): 25.6 MPG, 7.1 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 68.6% FG, 45.2% FT
Perkins, age 25 (2009-10): 27.6 MPG, 10.1 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 60.2% FG, 58.2% FT

He’s also one of the best chemistry guys in the league — one of those happy dudes who somehow knows every single guy on every other team even though he’s been in the league for only three years.1 And D.J. works his ass off; you don’t have to worry about paying him and having him go Eddy Curry on you. Blake Griffin, a famously hard worker and Jordan’s closest friend, had an enormous impact on Jordan’s career in that respect. Sadly, D.J. has a fatal flaw: He’s just about useless offensively unless he’s throwing down an alley-oop, finishing off a nice assist or putting back an offensive rebound. Actually, he’s worse than that: Jordan shoots free throws soooooooooooooooo poorly (41 percent for his career, 45 percent last season) that you could actually see him shrink away from the ball in close games. If you’re afraid to get fouled, that changes the way you play — just ask everyone who rooted for Antoine Walker.

Here’s the reality: Perkins signed a four-year extension with Oklahoma City for $32.55 million (and got paid an extra $2 million last year as something of a signing bonus). That means Jordan’s next contract should pay him about $32 million over four years in a world that makes sense. But because of the Saab corollary, because too many teams have money to spend, because restricted free-agent offers skew high (so they don’t get matched) and because it’s the NBA and teams just can’t help themselves, get ready for a team to make Jordan a restricted offer around the “four years, $42 million” range.

First of all … yikes.

Second … Kendrick Perkins just threw his iPad through a window at 95 miles an hour.

Third … what do you do if you’re the Clips? You can’t just let Griffin’s best friend leave with the whole “Will Blake stay or go two years from now?” situation looming. You also can’t pay Jordan and Chris Kaman a combined $22 million to share your center spot this season. (Not even Mark Cuban in his reckless heyday would have done that.) Here’s the move: You match that Jordan offer (or quickly make one yourself) then give Kaman away to a team with a ton of cap space, whether it’s Indiana, Sacramento, New Jersey, Toronto, Denver or whomever. Getting Kaman as a one-year, $12.2 million flier and salary-cap stopgap for next year’s free-agency extravaganza isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Fourth … any Jordan suitor knows the previous paragraph will probably play out that way. Which means … (you better hold on to something so you don’t fall over) … well … (I’m telling you, hold on to something to be safe) … if someone really wants Jordan and wants to force the Clippers’ hand … (maybe drink a glass of water to prepare for these next few words) … if they really want Jordan, they should offer $50 million for four years.

Fifty million! For DeAndre Jordan!!!! It’s not totally far-fetched!

Hold that thought. And remember, no team has won a title without a solid center since the ’98 Bulls. The past 12 champs had David Robinson, Shaq (three straight Laker titles), Robinson (and really, Duncan), Ben Wallace, Duncan again, Shaq (Miami), Duncan a third time, Kendrick Perkins, Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum (twice) and Chandler (with Brendan Haywood). That’s why teams place such a premium on centers … and, many times, just choose to overpay them. Let’s go back to the top three available centers again.

1a. Marc Gasol
My favorite pick because of his age (26), his all-around skills (he’s just one of those “fun to play with” guys), his big-game experience (thanks to international play) and his sterling 2011 playoff performance (13 games, 40.0 MPG, 15.0 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 51.1% FG). Gasol played so well last spring that he single-handedly transformed the Pau Gasol/Memphis/Lakers trade from “one of the most lopsided basketball trades of all time” to “a one-sided trade that swung two titles but won’t be remembered as a historical atrocity.” I’m fine with overpaying Gasol with a lavish restricted offer. Four years, $74.3 million (the max offer allowed) for Indiana, Toronto, New Jersey, Houston or Sacramento? Sure. Done. He’s worth $15 million a year and you’re paying the new-car sticker tax for him (that restricted fee). No-brainer. You can win the NBA title if Marc Gasol is your third-best player.

1b. Tyson Chandler
You know what you’re getting with the 29-year-old Chandler, the emotional leader and defensive anchor of the 2011 champs. Basically, it’s a slightly poor man’s version of 2008 KG without a low-post game. Because of his injury history, I wouldn’t go higher than four years, $55 million for him (and even that would make me nervous). Of course, someone will creep closer to that $74.3 million limit … and at that point, you’re crossing your fingers and hoping for four healthy years from Tyson Chandler.

You know what really fascinates me? Dallas, a team that normally throws money at centers like Pacman Jones making it rain at a strip club, doesn’t seem that interested in overpaying Chandler. What do they know? Do they have inside info? Do they think he might break down soon? Note to potential Chandler suitors: If there was ever a time to “pretend” you’re in Dallas for the night, invite Mark Cuban out for dinner, put a few drinks in him and eke out his inside Chandler info, it’s this week.2

And yet … I still feel like the Mavericks are playing possum here. They wouldn’t have beaten Miami without Chandler last year. They know this. They also know that they need to get by Miami THIS year, and if anyone knows how to protect the rim against Miami and get into LeBron’s head, it’s Tyson Chandler. I can’t see them turning that specific responsibility/need/specialty over to Brendan Haywood when they already have that guy and he wants to stay. They just need to get creative; you can’t overpay both, but you can overpay one. More on this in a second.

1c. Nene
This one scares the hell out of me. What am I getting, exactly? He’s 29 years old and has a surgically repaired knee. He played nearly as many games the past three years (260, including playoffs) as he did for his first six seasons (315, including playoffs). He’s not exactly an emotional leader — those Nuggets teams melted down as much as anyone, and you’d have to consider it at least somewhat telling that Carmelo Anthony pushed his way off a team that had a top-five center on it. The biggest thing for me: If he’s a top-five center, then why is Nene such a lousy rebounder? These past three seasons, he averaged 32.6, 33.6 and 30.5 minutes per game … and 7.8, 7.6 and 7.6 rebounds. He wasn’t even a top-25 rebounder last year. (FYI: LeBron nearly outrebounded him!) He also doesn’t protect the rim that well; for instance, Dwyane Wade (1.14) Channing Frye (1.01), Shane Battier (0.99) averaged more blocks than Nene (0.97) last season.

With Nene, you’re getting an athletic big man who makes 60 percent of his shots, as well as someone who makes opposing teams say, “They have a center” … and that’s about it. At 29, you are who you are. He can’t quite take over games; he’s never going to do what Chandler did in last year’s playoffs from a protecting-the-rim standpoint; he needs extra rebounding help or you’re getting killed on the boards; he’s never won anything; and oh, you better hope his knees hold up. For me, it’s no contest — not only would I rather have Gasol or Chandler, I’d rather overpay Jordan (at least he’s an up-and-comer) for 50 to 60 percent of what Nene will probably cost (four years, $74.3 million without a sign-and-trade).

So who’s willing to splurge on Nene? Not to go all Hubie Brown on you, but we know the Nets will pay whatever it takes for a center and they’re already “all in” after the Deron Williams trade. We know Houston is getting an above-average center come hell or high water. We know Indiana, Denver and Sacramento have a crapload of cap space, and we know Toronto and Washington are an executed amnesty clause away from getting there. We also know that Memphis is vowing to match any restricted offer to Gasol.

That means seven teams might be bidding for Chandler and Nene … and two (New Jersey and Houston) are desperate. Even if they’re worth $55 million apiece for four years, they’ll end up getting $20 million more; I wouldn’t be shocked if the Nets pulled off a sign-and-trade with Denver to give Nene $100 million for five. You think Mikhail Prokhorov cares about overpaying the fifth-best center in basketball? You think he cares about dropping an extra $50 million per year with the tougher luxury tax? I don’t think Nene’s next contract will be remembered on the Rashard Lewis/Gilbert Arenas level as a historical abomination, but at the very least, it will join Joe Johnson’s extension as this decade’s defining example of a team overpaying a good player who isn’t great (or even close to great).

Hold on, we’re not done. We just overpaid Chandler, Nene and Jordan and properly paid Gasol (extravagantly, but still). Don’t forget about these centers …

Sitting there for one year, $12.2 million if the Clippers pay Jordan. Here’s what I would do if I ran the Clippers …

Step 1: Pay Jordan. You can’t mess around with Blake. And by the way, the Clips are only at $44.9 million right now. It’s not like they don’t have the money.

Step 2: Make the following phone call.

“Hey, Maloof brothers … you need to spend $17.5 million just to hit the league’s salary floor ($49.3 million). You give us Jason Thompson (one year, $3 million remaining), we’ll give you Kaman and the chance to have a secretly beastly low-post combo of the K-Man and Boogie (DeMarcus Cousins). That brings you within $8.3 million of the salary floor. Any interest? Any? (Listening.) What? You’re asking me how much money I have in my wallet right now? Um, I have about $400 bucks. You want me to throw that in the trade? (Listening.) Fine, I can go to an ATM and get another $500. Would $900 do it? You want 20s or 100s … ?”

Sam Dalembert: Past two seasons: 160 games, 25 MPG, 8.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 51% FG, 73% FT … wait, what? Isn’t that what I’m getting from Perkins/Jordan/Haywood? Start preparing emotionally for a “Team X has reached agreement with center Samuel Dalembert for a four-year, $44 million deal.” It’s coming.

Greg Oden: By all accounts, a good person and someone who’s legitimately tortured about letting the Blazers and their fans down. Looks like he’s accepting their one-year qualifying offer for $8.9 million. Still … if I’m Indiana, I’m offering the hometown kid a three-year deal for $33 million that goes backwards ($12 million, $11 million, $10 million) with Year 3 kicking in only if Oden plays 65 games or more in Year 2. If anyone needs a change of scenery, it’s Greg Oden.

Brendan Haywood: Totally, horrendously overpaid, and yet not overpaid at all. Haywood’s 2009-10 numbers (a contract year, but still): 30.6 MPG, 9.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 56.2% FG, 62% FT. Sure sounds like what I’m getting statistically from Perkins or Jordan, right?

If you’re Houston, would you rather overpay Chandler, overpay Jordan … or pretend you want to overpay Chandler, get Dallas to overpay him, then trade for Haywood instead? Even something like “Patrick Patterson ($1.9 million this season) for Haywood ($7.4 million this season)” works under the cap. Hmmmmmmm. If you’re Dallas, let’s say you offer Chandler a four-year, $69 million deal starting at $15 million in Year 1, then save $5.7 million with a Patterson/Haywood swap. Are you better off? As long as Chandler doesn’t break down over these next four years … actually, you are.

Andris Biedrins Available for free (just assume the past three years and $27 million of his deal), or as a potential amnesty guy (if Golden State gets Chandler or Nene). And why? Because he can’t stay healthy (past three years: 92 missed games), can’t shoot free throws (32.3 percent last year!) and lost every single shred of his offensive confidence. If I had a quality point guard, I’d wait until Biedrins gets amnestied and take a flier on him for this reason: Biedrins looked good only once during his professional career, when Baron Davis was driving to the hoop and setting him up for layups and dunks. That’s his best professional skill other than his ability to look like a skinny Ivan Drago. Stick him with a slashing point guard (say, John Wall) and he’d be better than he actually is.

Josh McRoberts: That’s right, the same Josh McRoberts who was nearly dealt to Memphis with a no. 1 pick for O.J. Mayo at the trade deadline, only they didn’t announce the trade in time (one of the most underrated NBA boners of recent years). He’s not a true center (more of a power forward who can masquerade as a center on a non-contender, ala David Lee), but his numbers (22.2 MPG, 7.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 0.8 BPG, 2.1 APG, 54.7% FG and 73.9% FT) weren’t bad last season. You know what that means? Ladies and gentleman, I present to you our most likely winner of the Amir Johnson Award for this year’s “Wait, He Signed For WHAT????????” guy. Someone will give him the full mid-level or the financial equivalent. It’s coming. A quick PS: Johnson exceeded everyone’s expectations in Toronto last season, so be careful about making too much fun of Roberts for $25 million (or whatever it ends up being).

Spencer Hawes: Just never got better. You can’t be an “offensive” center and make 45 percent of your shots. He’s Chris Mihm 2.0. Will someone overpay him? Of course! Are you kidding me? In a heartbeat!

Aaron Gray: I’ve always liked him as a backup center, just not as someone making Darko Milicic money ($5 million a year). Unfortunately, he’s headed for Darko money. Gulp.

Let’s make some predictions for those 12 centers. Important note to Kendrick Perkins: Stop reading right now. Just trust me.

1. Nene
Prediction: Signs with New Jersey (five years, $100 million, thanks to a sign-and-trade with Denver3)

2. Marc Gasol
Prediction: Re-signs with Memphis (five years, $78 million)

3. Tyson Chandler
Prediction: Re-signs with Dallas (four years, $69 million)4

4. DeAndre Jordan
Prediction: Re-signs with Clippers (five years, $46 million)5

5. Chris Kaman
Prediction: Traded to Sacramento (for Jason Thompson)
Verdict: One year away from being OVERPAID AGAIN

6. Sam Dalembert
Prediction: Signs with Denver (four years, $40 million)

7. Brendan Haywood
Prediction: Traded to Houston (for Patrick Patterson and a future no. 1 pick)

8. Greg Oden
Prediction: Re-signs with Portland (one year, $8.9 million)

9. Andris Biedrins
Prediction: Stays put, much to the chagrin of every Warriors fan

10. Josh McRoberts
Prediction: Signs with New Orleans (four years, $26 million)

11. Spencer Hawes
Prediction: Signs with Detroit (three years, $18 million)

12. Aaron Gray
Prediction: Signs with Indiana (three years, $15 million)

A quick recap: eight “overpaids,” one “slightly overpaids,” one “comically overpaid,” two “properly paids” … and that’s just the center position, (the team that, other than New Jersey, seems most desperate to irrationally overpay somebody). Come on out, NBA Groundhog … I have a feeling you’re going to see your shadow.

Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.

Previously from Bill Simmons:

It’s a Black Friday Half-Mailbag
The Sports Guy’s Thanksgiving Picks
Business Vs. Personal

Filed Under: Bill Simmons, NBA, People, Simmons, Sports

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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