The Perilous Journey Into the NBA’s Bargain Bin

The San Antonio Spurs, bastions of the beautiful game who discovered Gary Neal and fanned the embers of Danny Green’s jump shot, are working out Michael Beasley, per Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

That’s the same Michael Beasley who flamed out for three teams amid off-court troubles, yawn-inducing jab steps, bricked 20-footers, and listless “defense.” This does not mean the Spurs are going to sign Beasley. San Antonio has 14 players with fully guaranteed contracts for this season, one short of the NBA’s roster limit.

Beasley couldn’t crack Miami’s playoff rotation until Erik Spoelstra ran out of ideas in a hopeless Finals, but he’s 25 and available for the minimum salary. Miami took justifiable criticism during the LeBron James era for using precious salary exceptions on old guys who eventually broke apart and couldn’t keep up against younger teams. Some of those guys — Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Chris Andersen — held up well and played essential roles in Miami’s two championship runs. Others wasted roster spots.

The Heat once had Patrick Beverley, a rabid badger with human arms, and waived him. Why couldn’t they find more Patrick Beverleys instead of settling for Juwan Howards?

It’s a fair question that gets at a lot of sticky issues in the NBA’s player development system, though in Beasley, Justin Hamilton, DeAndre Liggins, and a few others, the Heat at least tried to find springy legs for the supporting cast. The Cavaliers are already facing the same criticism after signing Shawn Marion and creating a Heat North wing of the locker room for Mike Miller and James Jones.

The situations are not nearly equivalent, as even those raising the concern would acknowledge. LeBron’s two supporting stars are 26-year-old Kevin Love and 22-year-old Kyrie Irving, Cleveland has an extra first-rounder eventually coming from Memphis, and there are valuable young guys (until Cleveland overpays them) across the roster in Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Matthew Dellavedova, and others. Anderson Varejao seems an NBA elder, but he’s only 31.

The larger point is that it’s very hard to find Patrick Beverleys and Danny Greens. The under-27 free agent available for the minimum salary who can actually play isn’t a unicorn, but it’s a rare thing. We see Green raining fire and Beverley strip-searching ball handlers, and we forget all the washed-out draft picks and minimum-salaried free agents who couldn’t maintain a spot in any NBA rotation. This is an NBA version of survivorship bias, the mental glitch where we assume active successes are the norm because they are in front of our faces while the more typical outcomes are in street clothes or the Chinese league.

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Luke Babbitt and Alexis Ajinca made brief splashes in New Orleans last season before the league rediscovered their limitations. Jon Leuer1 will get our hopes up with a few good games before Dave Joerger loses trust in him in Memphis. Both Chris Johnsons have had encouraging NBA moments, only to vanish. Lou Amundson will catch on, snag some rebounds that have an extra dramatic flair thanks to his topknot/ponytail, and eventually find himself nailed to the bench again because he can’t shoot. Dozens more will sign 10-day contracts, sit on the bench, and disappear.

Second-round picks are the easiest way to grab young talent at the minimum salary, but most such players never amount to anything, and they’re only available to one team — the team that selects them — for the early part of their careers. Some minimum-salary success stories sign more expensive deals with new teams and prove unable to play or live up them — the Chris Copeland paradigm.

Even the Spurs have whiffed more than they’ve hit in the minimum bin. That’s the nature of the beast. They wouldn’t look at Beasley now if the bin were teeming with available and interesting young players. General managers are fond of saying, “If a player hasn’t made it by age 25 or 26, there’s a reason he hasn’t made it.”

That phrase is correct for most of the minimum bin, but it also shows a failure of imagination. Teams that define players by what they can’t do risk overlooking plus NBA skills attached to unformed all-around players. Green and Neal had clear discrete NBA skills, and the Spurs nurtured them into well-paid veterans.

There is some risk to that adventure, especially for a team that wants to win now. The Cavaliers could have signed Al-Farouq Aminu for the minimum instead of Marion. Like Marion, Aminu is a long-armed hybrid forward who can defend multiple positions but can’t shoot. Aminu also has one discrete NBA skill: He’s a monstrous rebounder for a wing player. His defense has been uneven at times, and he can’t pass or dribble at Marion’s level. Marion has also shown he can hit the corner 3, a crucial skill for any role player on a LeBron team.

The risk runs in the other direction, too: Aminu might develop the other parts of his game to the point of reliability, and Marion, 36, might fall off so quickly as to become a liability against elite competition. Marion showed serious slippage on both ends for the first time last season.

Contending teams are generally more comfortable with the downside risk of the veteran player — the known commodity and stable locker-room presence. It takes time to build a young player’s skill set, and that time takes place off at the side table from the team’s larger goal. Some teams handle that dissonance better than others. You don’t have to spend time teaching Marion or Miller anything beyond the game plan.

The cost-benefit analysis is different for a lottery dreg like Philly, which can afford to take as many shots at the next Danny Green as it’d like.

Beverley played in Ukraine before returning to the NBA, and there are dozens of international guys who could play in the NBA — and be had on the cheap. But the best ones make good money, especially with China emerging as a viable alternative to top European leagues, and they are not coming to the NBA on the rookie minimum salary of just more than $500,000. It took more than double that to lure Luigi Datome, Vitor Faverani, Damjan Rudez, and Miroslav Raduljica last season, and they all sit a tier below the best international guys.

(Fran Fraschilla and I discussed this issue on a recent podcast, and in response, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton came up with the idea of tweaking NBA rules so international players of a certain experience level could be eligible right away for at least the minimum salary of second-year NBA players — $816,482 this season. That at least gets you in the ballpark. It’s an intriguing concept.)

Teams over the cap can pay these guys more than the minimum, but doing so brings a major cost. For a capped-out team, it means dipping into a precious salary exception — the midlevel, or the smaller biannual exception teams can use every other year. The midlevel is a finite thing; every dollar spent on one player reduces the portion left over for anyone else.

The CBA makes those choices harder. There are two midlevels — a big one worth $5.3 million, and a small one worth $3.278 million. The small one is technically reserved for teams over the luxury tax, but in practice, teams below the tax sometimes keep their midlevel spending within the confines of that smaller $3.278 million. Spending into the bigger midlevel carries a painful cost: The team is then prohibited from spending even $1 on total team payroll above a line set $4 million over the tax. This is really the only “hard cap” in the NBA’s salary system.

The Clippers learned this the hard way when they signed Spencer Hawes with the full midlevel and found themselves so close to that ceiling that it would have been hard to sign even one minimum-salaried player — kind of a big deal in a league where players get hurt all the time. They had to sacrifice Jared Dudley and a future first-round pick to acquire two players from Milwaukee they could waive at no cost — opening up room to sign Ekpe Udoh, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Joe Ingles to minimum-salary deals.

The Spurs are a title contender, possibly the favorite, and they didn’t use either midlevel exception. The Thunder signed Anthony Morrow within the limits of the smaller midlevel. Going whole hog with the midlevel would have put them in competition for a better player, but it would have also triggered the hard ceiling and placed Oklahoma City very close to the tax line. And that tax is a helluva lot nastier under the new CBA — even if the Thunder, always crying poor, netted an estimated $30 million profit last season, per league documents obtained by Grantland.

Had Oklahoma City dipped into its midlevel to sign an international player, they’d have had less money for Morrow. Perhaps they couldn’t have afforded him at all.

It was easier under the old CBA to Band-Aid any weakness with added spending in various forms, including lopsided trades. The current CBA forces more either-or choices.

All of this explains why teams are paying more attention than ever to first-round flameouts. Aside from a stray Jan Vesely (man, we’re going to miss his dunks and fouls and air-balled free throws), most of them want to stay in the NBA, and many become available for the minimum. Teams since the lockout have become a bit more choosy on third- and fourth-year options for first-round picks, declining them at a slightly higher rate2 and sending a few more guys than usual into free agency very early in their careers.

League interest last season in Jordan Hamilton, now on a smart nonguaranteed minimum deal with the Raptors, was way out of proportion with his NBA track record. Ditto for Derrick Williams, though the Wolves picked up his pricey fourth-year option. Something made these players first-round picks, and teams are keen to see if that something still lurks underneath all the bad habits, mistakes, and injuries.

Those guys are out there every summer. The Lakers have made a killing on Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, and now Ed Davis, and Davis in L.A. at the minimum means all 29 other teams made a mistake. Still, it’s unclear if any of those guys will become rotation players on good teams, and the Lakers have a built-in market advantage that trickles down to minimum-level free agents.

Their crosstown rivals nabbed Udoh, the no. 6 pick in the 2010 draft, for the minimum; the Pellies are hoping for a Jimmermania revival; and the Spurs have Austin Daye, the 15th pick in 2009, kicking around just in case. The Rockets and Celtics have a gazillion players between them on minimum deals, some of which are only partially guaranteed, and teams are bringing in as many training camp invites as the league allows.

Most of those signings will fail. Some of these guys just aren’t NBA players. Some might be, but teams under pressure to win now rarely have the patience to let them play through mistakes or settle into an NBA role different than the one anyone imagined for them during campus glory days.

But some will hit, and a hit at this price is huge. Greg Smith, an undrafted free agent, was a legit rotation player in Houston before suffering knee issues; he’s in Dallas at the minimum now. P.J. Tucker was a godsend on the wing for Phoenix, and the Suns valued Tucker enough to keep him when he got expensive last summer. Henry got to the line at a crazy rate and nearly murdered Jeff Withey, and though he didn’t really do anything else well, being good at that one thing is worth keeping him around at the minimum just in case anything else pops.

The key is to take as many swings as possible. Too many teams in the past punted the grunt work of roster-building — trading away second-round picks for no good reason, ignoring the D-League, and fielding laughable summer league rosters. That has changed almost everywhere. Using NBA roster spots on limping veterans might fall into the same general category, but those guys have value.

It’s about balance. Miller and Marion can still play, but Jones, minus a little outburst against Charlotte in last season’s playoffs, has been essentially unplayable for three years. That’s the roster spot Cleveland really should have used on an Aminu type, though it didn’t have a choice if LeBron wanted Jones to stay on as his remora fish.

The “they only signed ancient guys!” trope doesn’t really hold up here. It held up with LeBron’s Miami teams, over-infatuated with big names at all ages, but it was too often delivered without proper context. Finding Greens and Beverleys is hard work, and it might only pay off once every five years.

The work will get easier once the D-League becomes a true minor league system and the NBA creates extra hybrid roster spots for players sent back and forth between the D-League and parent club. For now, teams just have to keep grinding for any edge.

Filed Under: NBA, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Michael Beasley, Patrick Beverley, LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, Shawn Marion, Al-Farouq Aminu, 2014-15 NBA Preview

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA