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A Counterfactual

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Lately I've been reading almost exclusively non-fiction.  I'm not really sure why.  I'm having trouble getting excited about stories that didn't really happen, I guess.  I mean, if it's all just coming out of some guy's imagination, who cares?  I suppose I should get excited about the language or some such, but after Steinbeck, what's the point?  Tom Robbins is fun and all, but even he has left me a little bored lately.

Non-fiction stories that read like a novel are good.  So I recently read Into Thin Air for the first time (not sure why I hadn't read it before) and really enjoyed that.

I've also been reading a fair amount of science and history.  But not text books.  There needs to be a twist.  Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything was exactly in my sweet spot.  The entire history of science, presented as a story and not as a collection of facts, written in crackling prose no less.  Perfect.  I highly recommend it.

Currently I'm reading a compilation called What If?  It's a collection of essays written by eminent historians about pivotal points in history, musing on what the world might be like had things happened differently.  The correct term for this is 'counterfactual history' in case you were wondering.  It's interesting.  The basic idea is that you can learn a lot about something by looking not just at what happened, but at what didn't happen, and why that's important.

Today's counterfactual discussion is as follows:  What if the Clippers had not extended Chris Kaman's contract for $52M over 5 years last off-season?

At the time, I questioned the wisdom, but praised the precedent.  For a franchise with a reputation as cheap and reactive, it sent a message that they were going to be pro-active.  Unfortunately, it appears that they have pro-acted their way straight to salary cap hell.

If the Clippers had waited, Chris Kaman would have been a restricted free agent this summer.  At the beginning of free agency, four teams had enough cap space to offer more than the mid-level exception:  Orlando, Memphis, Charlotte and (maybe) Milwaukee.  Given the specifics of those four teams, it seems unlikely that any of them would have made a run at Kaman.  Maybe Memphis would have shown interest, but not likely.  The others all have low post players younger and better than Kaman (though the jury is still out on Bogut).

Given Kaman's 06-07 performance, the idea that any of those 4 teams would have offered 5/$52M is insane.  (Of course, NBA GM's make insane contract offers all the time, but still.)  

Had the Clippers waited, they would have been able to match a much smaller offer (if indeed one had come) or signed Kaman to less without any competing offer.  Then again, they were competing against themselves last year, so there's no guarantee they wouldn't have overpaid this summer as well.

Kaman could of course have chosen to accept a qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent next summer.  But if he plays this season the way he did in 06-07 (a) he would not have made a lot as a free agent and (b) the Clippers would happily let him sign elsewhere, as they did with his predecessor Michael Olowokandi.

I like Kaman.  I'm hopeful that he will have a bounce back year this year and get back on his 2006 career trajectory.    But the fact is, this counterfactual argument was not difficult to predict in October 2006.  We didn't know that he was going to have the poorest shooting season of his young career, but we did know that almost no one was going to have cap space this summer.  

Instead, the Clippers bid against themselves to the tune of $52M.  They don't even have the flexibility to shop the guy, since his 06-07 was so sub-par, and they negotiated poison pills into the contract that make it even tougher to trade him (though the $52M would seem to make it tough enough).  So at this point, the team has no choice other than to stick it out, and hope last season was the anomaly.  We'll see.

The good news would seem to be that Kaman, while something of a space cadet, is highly motivated and works hard.  All indications are that he truly wants to improve and is willing to put in the work to make it happen, unlike certain former Clipper centers like Benoit Benjamin, Stanley Roberts and of course the Kandi-man.  

While we're on the subject, Tony Mejia at Sportsline.com released his center rankings a couple days ago and he had Kaman at 15.  30 teams in the league.  Average.  Yawn.  What makes it that much more painful is that Mejia had Kaman ranked 5th (!) at this time last season.  How the mighty have fallen.

For a top 5 center, 5/$52M seems OK, maybe even a bargain.  For a guy in the middle of the pack, it's ridiculous, right?  Well, as it happens, I looked at the other centers on Mejia's list, and 12 of the 14 guys rated higher than Kaman are either paid more, or will be when they sign their next contract (i.e. they're only paid less because they are on their rookie deals).  The only two exceptions (Marcus Camby and Mehmut Okur) are in the neighborhood money-wise, even though some external factor limited their value in their last contract (Camby's injury history and the fact that Okur wasn't even a starter when he signed with Utah).  What I'm saying is, most centers in the NBA are overpaid.  Even with his horrible 06-07 season, Kaman's salary is not actually out of line with his peers.  Sad but true.

The bottom line is, had the Clippers not extended Kaman last season, they would have been able to sign him for significantly less this summer.  That lower contract would in turn have given them more flexibility with their salary structure, and perhaps most importantly, Chris Kaman might actually be a valuable trade asset today.  Sure, MDsr has deemed him untouchable in the past.  But there's a big difference between untouchable and untradeable (one's good and the other's bad).  The coming season would still likely be a disaster without Brand, and you would probably want to keep Kaman in EB's absence just to see what he can do as the main low post option.  But it's always good to have options, and the Clippers have very few of those with this contract.

But enough about the past.  Let's look to the future.  Chris Kaman is, in all likelihood, the Clipper center for the next five seasons.  He is big, he is athletic, he has great hands, he has terrific footwork, and he is ambidextrous.  He has all the tools to be a top 5 center, even if he did not play like one last season.  And with Elton Brand out, Kaman will have every opportunity to earn his $52M.  Let's hope at the end of this season we're not asking 'What if...'?