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NBA Centers - Supply and Demand

Watching the playoffs this week, I couldn't help thinking about Chris Kaman's contract extension.  You may recall that when Kaman and his agent were negotiating his extension, the comparable contracts they pointed to were those of Samuel Dalembert and Tyson Chandler.  In fact, Kaman's 5 year, $52.5M extension ended up being a little south (one year shorter and slightly less per year) of those for Dalembert and Chandler, who each got 6 years in the neighborhood of $66M. 

Since Kaman signed the extension, the pendulum has been swinging wildly on his value.  During the final season of his rookie deal, with the extension signed but not yet in effect, it looked like a monumental mistake, as Mr. Flippy pirouetted through a regressive season of 45% shooting, barely 10 points per game and more missed bunnies than a blind greyhound.  Then, for the first three months of the new contract, it looked like a brilliant maneuver to lock him up on the cheap, as Kaman 2.0 emerged with rebounding and blocked shot averages among the top three in the NBA.  And then the injury bug bit, possibly accompanied by his pal the apathy spider, and once again the Clippers center looks overpaid. 

This question is pertinent to the Clippers off-season - what is the perception of Kaman's contract in the NBA marketplace?  If other GM's (at least a few) believe that Kaman is worth the 3 years and $34M left on his extension, then the Clippers may be able to get something close to equal value in trade for a player at a position where they happen to have a logjam.  If not, the pickings will be slim.

When you're dealing with NBA centers, you really have to remember the laws of supply and demand.  That's where Dalembert and Chandler come in.  As a rule of thumb, NBA centers get 8 figures per year, provided they have a pulse.  Now, I realize that I'm being a little unfair to Chandler, who has been hurt (more on that later), but he's been a non-factor in the Hornets' two embarrassing losses to the Nuggets, averaging 6.5 points and 8 rebounds in 31 minutes per game.  Dalembert, on the other hand, has barely played against Dwight Howard and the Magic, the Sixers instead going with 36 year old Theo Ratliff, who makes the NBA minimum.  (Talk about pendulum swings - Ratliff went from being one of the most overpaid players in the league to one of the most underpaid.)  Think about that - you have a 27 year old center who you owe $27.5M over the next two years, and instead you're playing a 36 year old on a one year minimum deal during the playoffs.  Ratliff has played 47 minutes in the series to Dalembert's 26.  Ouch.

But while Chandler and Dalembert look wildly overpaid in hindsight, it's really just supply and demand.  There are not enough quality NBA centers for 30 teams, and consequently almost anyone who shows even reasonable potential gets a nice big massive ridiculous contract.  Take a look at the list of NBA centers who played over 700 minutes this season (700 being an arbitrary number that was low enough to get DeAndre Jordan and Chris Kaman to show up).  The list is imperfect - it's missing several players who are essentially centers, but who are not listed as such on Basketball Reference (including for instance Marcus Camby).  But it's a good starting point.

Of the 34 names on the list:

  • 11 of them are on their rookie contracts and have yet to sign an extension, meaning that their salary was mandated by the CBA if they were first round picks, and was even less if they were not a first round pick. When they sign a new contract, they'll no doubt join the ranks of the wildly overpaid.
  • 3 of them (Shaq, Yao and Dwight Howard) are maximum-type contracts (I say maximum-type because strictly speaking Shaq is allowed to make more than $20M, but it ain't chicken feed).  Of the pseudo-center missing from the list, Jermaine O'Neal and Tim Duncan fall into this category as well.
  • 9 of them make $9M per year or more, but less than the maximum.  This is Kaman's peer group.  It includes the aforementioned Chandler and Dalembert, and a couple of recently extended youngsters like the Andrew B's (Bogut and Bynum).  Emeka Okafor, Nene, Al Jefferson and Eddy Curry are all in this category as well.  Of this group, Biedrins looks like he might be a bargain at 6/$54M, and of course Nene defied the odds with a huge season, though at the time he signed his deal it looked like one of the worst of the bunch.
  • 10 more make between $3M per year and $8M per year.   I guess these would qualify as your bargains, and the names include such luminaries as Dan Gazuric ($6.2M this season), DeSagana Diop ($6M) and Zaza Pachulia ($4M).  Pachulia and Joel Pzrybilla (a 15.4 PER for a mere $6.4M this season) are the real bargains, such as they are.  You could put a few more names like Kwame Brown, Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas into this group.
  • That leaves one veteran NBA center who played more than 700 minutes while making less than $3M this season - Jamaal Magloire.  Of course Magloire (like Theo Ratliff and Dikembe Mutumbo and Antoino McDyess and Juwan Howard) falls into a special category of players that were once well paid (or wildly overpaid) who are now doing penance on a veteran's minimum contract.  Magloire and all of those other names are former all stars, if you can believe that.

Given that landscape, it's hard to argue that Chris Kaman is overpaid based on his on court productivity.  If these are the going rates for seven footers, then seven footers with Kaman's skillset are surely worth at least what the Clippers are paying Mr. Flippy.

But what about those pesky injuries?  No one is going to trade for a center who is so injury-prone when he's is still owed $34M, are they?

Again I say, supply and demand.

If you are looking for the supply of skilled seven footers who AREN'T injury prone, the list just got a lot smaller. 

Go down the list again (it's sorted in PER order to provide a level set of quality).  Yao Ming, Andrew Bynum, Greg Oden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Andrew Bogut, Nenad Krstic, Tyson Chandler and of course Nene who is not on the list - all just as 'injury-prone' as Kaman, if not more so.  And Andris Biedrins is troublingly close to the category at this point as well.  The only quality veteran centers in the NBA who could reasonably be called 'durable' are Dwight Howard and Shaq, and let's face it, those guys are in their own category physically.  The simple fact of the matter is, big guys get hurt.  Their bodies (especially their feet and ankles) take a pounding, and they break down.  In fact, over the course of his 6 year career, Kaman has been arguably above average in durability for a center, appearing in over 64 games a season on average.  Hell, Marcus Camby gets $2M in bonuses just for making it to 65. 

Might his recent injury woes be troubling to a team considering trading for him?  Of course it could be an issue.  But it's not as if he's undergone major surgery.  If Denver was willing to offer Nene a contract of 6/$60M contract in the summer of 2006, following a season in which he missed 81 of the 82 games because of a torn ACL, it's not unreasonable to think that some teams will be undaunted by the ouchie on Kaman's foot.

Don't forget what a tantalizing prospect Chris Kaman is (as if the Citizens of Clips Nation could).  Many of the contracts we've been looking at were signed based on potential alone.  Some of these guys, particularly Dalembert and Chandler but also Biedrins and Erick Dampier and others, have no discernible skills on offense whatsoever.  In sharp contrast, Kaman is the complete package on both ends of the floor, and has actually demonstrated results as opposed to just potential, if only for one injury-shortened season.  The list of NBA players to have averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in any season in the last decade is short and illustrious. 

  • Shaquille O'Neal
  • Tim Duncan
  • Dwight Howard
  • Yao Ming
  • Kevin Garnett
  • Elton Brand
  • Jermaine O'Neal
  • Chris Kaman

That's it.  Seven all stars and Mr. Flippy. 

Going through this exercise, I'm beginning to think maybe I don't want them to trade the guy.  Maybe it's worth holding on to him and hoping that Kaman 2.0 re-appears in a relatively healthy season.  But there's certainly no reason to hold a fire sale.  The supply of NBA centers with Kaman's skillset is very low - demand should be high enough.

Last point.  I lowered the minutes played on my search down to 700 to get DeAndre Jordan on the list.  There he is, just behind Kaman himself, his PER of 14.1 only slightly worse than Kaman's 14.5 this season.  DJ also happens to be the youngest and least experienced name on that list.  Jordan is locked up at a bargain price for two more seasons, but given the same supply and demand rules we've been discussing, someone will offer him a big contract in 2011 if he just continues to demonstrate some potential, maybe takes a couple of baby steps (if he improves significantly a la Bynum, it's an entirely different story).  That would be the final year of Kaman's current contract, but it may not be too early to start thinking about the next log jam at the center position.