Given a chance to write about actual basketball, NBA writers across the country are happily fanning the flames of free agency even before free agency has begun... before the lawsuit has been settled... before the player's union has reformed... before a CBA has been written or ratified... well, let's face, before a lot of things. Isn't it great to be back to normal?
Citizens of Clips Nation are understandably obsessed with various tidbits that might link the Clippers to superstars like Dwight Howard and Chris Paul (my advice there, pace yourself people; this is going to be a long process, and odds are it is not going to work out the way you want it to). But of more immediate concern may be the rumors surrounding Denver Nuggets center Nene. Ken Berger has the story:
The Nuggets are operating under the firm belief that Nene will test the market as an unrestricted free agent, according to a person familiar with the team's thinking. Six teams have registered interest, the source said: Golden State, New Jersey, Indiana, Miami, Dallas and Houston.
Berger goes on in the piece to discuss how much money the potential suitors could throw at the Brazilian big, and in so doing drops the phrase "max deal" a time or two. At which point the twittersphere blew up about how Nene didn't deserve a max deal, and how the owners were still stupid even after the lockout, and stuff like that.
Let's be clear about one thing: Berger never says or even really implies that any of the teams chasing Nene have any plans to offer him a maximum level contract - he's just discussing cap space and how high teams could go under the cap. The Warriors could get near the max by amnestying Biedrins; the Nets could get there by amnestying Outlaw. But just seeing "Nene" and "max deal" in close proximity on the screen was enough. Tom Ziller (perhaps with tongue in cheek?) even referred to Nene's inevitable max contract.
Eventually I'm going to get around to how all of this could reflect on the Los Angeles Clippers' own free agent center, DeAndre Jordan. But first let's look at the idea of Nene getting a max contract.
Supply and demand determine the contracts that NBA players receive, so I'm going to avoid absolute statements. One can't proclaim that Nene is not a max player, because there is nothing empirical in the definition. The definition is ultimately cyclic: a maximum player is a player that gets a maximum contract, period. I will say that while I like Nene as a player a lot (a) I will be surprised if he gets a maximum contract and (b) if it happens, the contract will be a major burden to the team that signs him before it has expired.
Nene has a basic problem as an NBA center - he's a hyper-efficient scorer who doesn't like to shoot. He's coming off a career year in which he led the league in shooting percentage - and George Karl basically had to beg him to take a friggin' shot. Of 14 Nuggets who played at least 400 minutes last season, 10 of them took more shots per minute than Nene did. Which basically means, when he was on the floor, he was their fourth or even fifth scoring option.
Which would be fine if Nene were a monster rebounder and shot blocker. Unfortunately, he's not. By rebounds per minute, rebound percentage, blocks per minute, block percentage... he's pretty disappointing. We're talking he's barely top 50 in the league as a rebounder and shot blocker. I'd expect much, much more from a max level center. Ultimately you're kind of left with a scoring center who doesn't actually score. He can score - he just chooses not to. Then there's the fact that he outperformed his career numbers last season by a wide margin, that he's 29 and that he has had several major injuries in his career. I like the guy, but I guarantee that the team that signs him for 4/$70M will regret it, and soon.
Be that at is it may, if there are indeed six teams interested in Nene, that means that there will be six teams ultimately disappointed (counting Denver). Now, for our purposes we'll ignore over the cap teams like Miami and Dallas. That leaves Golden State, New Jersey, Indiana, Houston and Denver who have cap space and according to Berger have an interest in Nene.
The NBA doesn't tend to follow the same rules we learned about in macro. As such, at first I thought that having several other quality centers on the market this off-season (Nene, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler) might tend to depress the market for Jordan. Supply of centers goes up, price goes down, right? The problem is that free agency tends to invent a sort of imaginary demand. When so many teams cleared so much money to chase LeBron James last summer, all those teams that didn't get him felt compelled to spend their money on something. A similar (clearly less severe) phenomenon could be at play with Jordan as well. If Golden State uses the amnesty provision to rid themselves of Andris Biedrins (aka the Nene of 2008) and then misses out Nene, suddenly the Warriors will be sitting there with no center and a pile of cash - a pile of cash they can slide over in front of DeAndre Jordan.
Ultimately, I don't consider either Indianapolis or New Jersey serious suitors for Nene, or for any center for that matter. They've each got young centers entering the final season of their rookie deals. Is Nene an upgrade over Roy Hibbert and/or Brook Lopez? Probably. But paying big money for Nene now means either doubling up on expensive bigs next summer, or giving up on their youngsters. I doubt either team is ready to do either of those things.
Houston has always been the wild card in the Jordan sweepstakes. His hometown team, entering their first official post Yao season, they don't even have Chuck Hayes at this point (he's a free agent). How big an offer the Rockets could make for Jordan remains to be seen. They're pretty far from being able to make a max offer, but they could certainly offer enough to make the Clippers think twice about matching.
Denver becomes a serious contender if Nene gets his wish and moves to a lower elevation. With most of their roster now in China the Nuggets have more cap space than anyone, and can't possibly spend it all just to re-sign Aron Afflalo and Gary Forbes.
In the end all of this talk about Nene reminds us of one simple NBA truth: very tall people command very large salaries. So if Donald Sterling or Neil Olshey or the citizens of Clips Nation were hopeful of re-signing DeAndre Jordan on the cheap, unfortunately it's probably not going to happen.