Sussing out the market for a specific player is always tough. Basically the entire NBA world thought Ben Gordon was a minimum-salary player, and a few team executives even suggested to me on Wednesday that Gordon should have had to earn his keep as a training-camp invite after snoozing through two disgruntled seasons in Charlotte.
But the Magic signed Gordon to a partially guaranteed two-year, $9 million deal for reasons that are unclear but probably pretty simple. The Magic aren’t in a rush to be good, and they need to fill cap space to meet the league’s mandated minimum salary floor without binoculars. They need shooting on a defense-first roster bereft of it, and Gordon can still knock down shots if he can run himself into open spaces — something that has proven harder for him with age. His new salary is a perfect matching ingredient in trades, and if he rehabs himself, the Magic could flip Gordon for a second-round pick down the line.
In the meantime, teams trying to re-sign their own shooters are kvetching about how Orlando has nudged the marketplace in the wrong direction.
There are just a ton of variables teams need to consider when navigating free agency: individual team needs; the massive glut of unspent cap space lying around; the possibility of teams with all that space whiffing on Carmelo Anthony and the Heat guys, and then going bananas late in free agency; the opposite possibility of teams fearing that late spending bonanza and bidding against imaginary suitors in the first days of free agency; the fluctuating value of players at particular positions; the sensibilities of individual GMs and coaches; and more.
So it was almost a relief when the Raptors and Kyle Lowry agreed to a four-year, $48 million deal that is so in line with leaguewide expectations, it’s practically boring. The Raptors might have played hardball, pushing for a lower salary number or a straight four-year deal. Lowry’s reps asked for a five-year contract, per sources familiar with the matter, and the two sides compromised on a four-year deal that carries a player option in Year 4.
That is essentially Kevin Love’s contract, and the Wolves can tell you how smart it is to allow a star player out of a contract one year earlier than necessary. But this is a different situation, obviously. Lowry is an unrestricted free agent in the middle of his prime; Love would have been a restricted free agent just entering his prime as a legit All-Star, a tier above Lowry on the league’s totem pole.
Handing control of Year 4 to Lowry isn’t ideal. He’ll be 31 then, and he has a history of injuries, ugly battles with coaches, and weight issues. When I asked Patrick Patterson in April what had been the secret to Lowry’s best-ever season, Patterson, a teammate of Lowry’s in Houston and Toronto, spit out the answer before I finished the question: “He lost a lot of weight.” He wasn’t joking around. It will be interesting to see if the Raptors squeezed in any incentives related to health and games played. It helps to have Alex McKechnie, perhaps the most respected trainer/sports scientist in the league, around to monitor Lowry’s health and training regimen.
The risk here is that if Lowry’s play declines, he could opt in for Year 4 at a price that proves to be an overpay. Still: That’s better for the Raptors than going whole hog on a five-year deal. Could they have done even better? Maybe. The Raptors did have some leverage here. They have a very good backup point guard in Greivis Vasquez, though Vasquez is also a free agent and has ankle issues that flare up now and then.
The number of teams with cap space and a glaring need for a starting point guard is pretty small. Orlando wasn’t going to splurge on Lowry, and the Magic aren’t an attractive destination right now for a dude who enjoyed being an alpha dog for a playoff team. Detroit and Milwaukee have incumbent Brandons (Jennings and Knight) at point guard, and only the Pistons so far seem ready to chase replacements in free agency — and their focus appears to be on Isaiah Thomas.
The Hawks don’t love Jeff Teague, but they’re not itching to spend big money yet on a replacement. The Bobcats, Suns, and Jazz all have guys they like at the position.
But the Lakers are out there with cap room and an angry Kobe Bryant who won’t tolerate a rebuild. Dallas traded its starting point guard, Jose Calderon, and will be primed with cap space if Melo rebuffs the team. The Heat liked Lowry, and the other 29 teams were relying on imperfect sleuthing to figure out how much cap room Miami might be able to open.
Someone was going to pay Lowry around this much, and even if the market cooled, more suitors would have jumped in at a price point not far below this one.
It was a joke Lowry missed the All-Star team last season. The coaches should be ashamed. He was probably the best point guard in the Eastern Conference from start to finish, raining off-the-bounce 3s, getting Toronto into its offense, toning down the wild gambles on defense, and using that stubby little body to draw more charges than anyone.
He’s not the most dynamic creator in the paint; Lowry averaged just 6.2 drives per game, a middling number for a starting point guard, and he’s never been a great finisher in the restricted area. His height will always be a problem in that regard. “When you’re not tall, you have to figure things out,” Lowry told me in April.
But his long-range shooting makes up for a lot of that, especially his ability to hit high-degree-of-difficulty 3s in the pick-and-roll. It’s scary to think about how that skill might fall off when Lowry loses half a step, and the tiny windows through which he releases those bombs get a few inches smaller.
But that’s a ways off. Lowry is a borderline star, this is a fair deal, and the Raptors didn’t have a lot of options if they wanted to maintain last year’s feel-good vibe, in a city desperate for a competitive team. Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s GM, hates losing assets for nothing; he re-signed Nene to a big deal in Denver mostly to keep him around for possible trades.
The Raptors had heard the stories about Lowry’s “attitude,” and most of those stories are true. “If you’re around people you don’t get along with, you don’t like, it’s awkward,” Patterson said. “In Houston, maybe there was somebody he didn’t like. That ruined the relationship. I’ve never seen any signs of that with him and [Dwane] Casey.”
Added Vasquez: “He’s always the first guy in the locker room and the last guy out. That’s professionalism. When I have my own team to run someday, I’m going to have flashbacks to all the winning plays he made here.”
Lowry seemed like a different person this season. He still raised his voice in practice more than most guys would, but the tone was different, and Casey was able to reach Lowry with patient and constructive criticism.
The ripple effects here are interesting. The Raps are set to be over the cap, with about $61.5 million in committed salary for next season, including charges for Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira. Both Vasquez and Patterson are free agents, and if the Raptors re-sign both at market value, they may reach the point where using the full midlevel exception is a stretch.
They have a need at both positions. Lowry flies around like a wild man, and he was so spent by the end of last season, the Raptors needed to reduce his minutes down the stretch. Investing this heavily in him now means you also have to invest in a good backup point guard. The Spurs just took one such player off the market by paying Patty Mills $4 million per season, the Mavs will do what it takes to re-sign Devin Harris, and most of the names after that aren’t super exciting.
D.J. Augustin reinvented himself after a bitter experience in Toronto, and Darren Collison earned himself some cash in the playoffs for the Clippers. But they may not be real options here, for various reasons.
Patterson provided valuable big-man depth and spacing behind the starting front line of Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson, who was a banged-up mess for much of last season. Wipe away Patterson, and you’re left with Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes, Steve Novak, and perhaps one of the Brazilian kids holding the fort for a team with playoff ambitions.
The Raptors also want a bigger wing player after watching Joe Johnson brutalize DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross in the postseason. Swapping John Salmons for Lou Williams also cost them some size.
Filling all three needs — backup point guard, backup big, and rangy wing — will require the use of the midlevel and butt Toronto up against the tax. This is a profitable team, and ownership has green-lit paying the tax if need be. The Pacers just gave C.J. Miles more than $4 million per season, and starrier targets like Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza, and Chandler Parsons are way out of Toronto’s price barring a sign-and-trade.
The Raps may be left to scour the bargain bin for guys like Shawn Marion (likely to return to Dallas), Alan Anderson (a former Rap), Thabo Sefolosha, Darius Miller, Al-Farouq Aminu, and others. Someone should make a small bet on Aminu, by the way. He can’t shoot and he’s sort of spacey at times, but he rebounds like a beast, runs the floor well, and plays hard on defense. He has shown flashes of improved passing and dribbling amid mostly harrowing on-ball play, and he can work as a stretch power forward.
An aside on the Pacers: They also signed Damjan Rudez, a Croatian shooting big man, to a starting salary of $1.1 million next season, per multiple sources familiar with his contract. Toss in the raise Paul George got for making All-NBA, and Indiana is up to about $72 million in committed salary for next season before re-signing Mr. Ear Blow. The tax line is projected at $77 million, and Larry Bird has said repeatedly the Pacers will not exceed it. Do the math. The Pacers are also about $400,000 closer to the tax than need be, since they signed Shayne Whittington instead of drafting him at No. 57 — a pick they sold to the Knicks.
The Pacers profited from that sale, but it hurt them in relation to the tax line because of the quirky rules on how undrafted guys count against the tax.
They can slice away about $2.5 million by buying out Luis Scola’s partially guaranteed deal, and inking a player with some overlapping skills, in Rudez, might enable that. But the math for Stephenson is still tight. One of the following four things must be true:
1. Indy is fine with Stephenson leaving.
2. Indy is willing to be over the tax in season, to try to get under it before the deadline of July 1, 2015, and to swallow a tax bill if that’s not manageable. The Pacers paid the tax when they were still good in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and they are projected to make about $7 million for 2013-14, per a confidential NBA memo reviewed and verified by Grantland.
That’s not much, and the Pacers are wholly dependent on revenue-sharing to get there, the memo shows. They are expected to lose about $14 million on their own, and shoot into the black via their $3 million share of tax payments and a whopping $18 million or so in projected revenue-sharing cashola. So they might have some financial leeway here.
3. The Pacers are confident the market for Stephenson is so barren, they can get him back at $8 million per season or less. This strikes me as lunacy, but perhaps the league is really that afraid of a 23-year-old unrestricted free agent who plays both ends at a thin position. Stephenson’s behavior has been troubling at times, but teams have invested more in guys with shakier records and less talent.
4. There is a cost-cutting move coming. Perhaps it is simple as waiving Scola and/or using the stretch provision on Chris Copeland, who also overlaps with Rudez in skill set. But it could be something bigger. Do not underestimate the willingness of Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh, and Kevin Pritchard to blow something up if they are convinced it’s not going to work long-term.
The obvious name here would be Roy Hibbert, with George Hill a runner-up. To be clear: This is just speculation. But stay tuned.
Back to the Raptors. Like basically everyone, they want to keep the cap sheet clean for the summer of 2016, when Kevin Durant will hit free agency. Two-year contracts signed now would expire at that point, and the Raps may play hardball with Vasquez, Patterson, and other targets on the years in any deal.
They might have to be a bit careful using the midlevel in multiple summers between now and then, and they’ll have to hand out new contracts to Valanciunas and Ross. DeRozan has a $9.5 million player option for 2016-17, and given how the market is evolving, he’d probably be smart to opt out of that and push for a long-term deal.
But the Raptors’ long-term outlook should be fine. This is a smart front office that will plan for every contingency, even if Durant in the True North seems like a pipe dream. In the meantime, Toronto fans get to enjoy a good team and a bowling-ball point guard.