Caden: Basketball is a business. There is no doubt about it. Starting next season, the new television deal totals nine years, $24 billion. ESPN and Turner Sports secured the contract because of the lucrative lure of The Association. The average teams values at $1.1 billion. Owners constantly search for ways to enhance to the NBA experience. Owners of the Milwaukee Buck, Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry, somehow, for reasonings outside my comprehension, convinced the taxpayers of Wisconsin to pitch in $250 million to build the new Buck stadium.
Owners make more than ever, however, these multimillionaires struggle deciding the worth of aging franchise players. The Miami Heat and owner Micky Arison preach family. The motto "you help us and we’ll help you," contract after contract, affected Dwyane Wade. Wade took pay cut after pay cut to help the Heat. Last summer, Wade was fed up. Rumors circulated the Heat offered Wade less than $10 million. He nearly walked. He grabbed Arison and Pat Riley by the balls and made them pay. Did the Heat make the right move signing Wade to a one year, $20 million deal? I say yes. The impact of Wade on and off the court is worth more than $20 million. It wasn’t the max contract Wade desired, but it's more than the Heat wanted to pay. Understandably the Heat hesitated to pay an aging star who missed 48 games the past season to injuries. But were the Heat forgetting about what Wade had done for Miami and shorting him? Apparently Wade thought so.
The lesser Los Angeles team struggles to determine the appropriate value of Kobe Bryant. Two years ago, Kobe tore his Achilles then received a contract extension retaining his status of highest paid player in the league. Now, Kobe’s shooting 33-percent and posting virtually career lows in every statistical category. By normal player standards shouldn’t Kobe be benched? Hell, Peyton Manning finally got benched. The only argument I’ve ever heard is "but it's Kobe Bryant." And that argument is right… to owners. Fans pay money to see a top-10 player of all-time play one more time. Although his play deteriorates, his legend grows. Fans show up hoping to see one last moment. When does holding on to the past limit the team’s growth? The Lakers have a bunch of younger guards who need experience. Kobe takes away those minutes. However, Kobe makes the most money. When is the right time to let go?
Larson: I guess the biggest question to ask when evaluating contracts given to aging superstar, franchise cornerstone players, like Kobe and Wade is what is the cost? You argue that for the Heat, they made the right move by eventually resigning him to a $20 million dollar one year deal. From a loyalty perspective that makes sense because the Flash won you multiple title through his amazing play with Shaq or his recruiting efforts for the Big 3; if any franchise has a debt to a player, they Heat have a humongous one to Wade. But, the problem wasn't quite fixed with his 1 year deal. It simply kicked the can down the road another year, because surely Wade will want another big contract next off season with the cap going up, especially since it will likely be his last big deal.
Based on your reasoning, I think you'd agree the Heat should pay it. But where does that leave them with Hasan Whiteside, who is going to be an unrestricted free agent next year? The Heat do not have his Bird Rights since he has only played 2 years on minimum deals, so if they want to resign him it will have to come out of cap space. Whiteside will likely be looking for a max contract after seeing DeAndre Jordan grab one. With around $48 million guaranteed already, paying Whiteside over Wade seems like the more prudent basketball decision, but who do the Heat prioritize? The math will be tight if they want to give Whiteside a max and Wade close to a max or the $20 million he made this year, and that would likely sacrifice much of their depth at other positions. Will the Heat call on Wade to take another pay cut, or try and give him more years at a lower price, say $60 million over 4 years instead of $40 million over 2 years.
Caden: You’re my cap guru, but my understanding is to resign both Whiteside and Wade, Luol Deng can not come back. That’s a plus! Start Justise! There is no Justise until Deng rests. I’d argue starting Justise over Deng right now is the correct decision. Also, emerging from the depths of the Heat lineup is bargain player Tyler Johnson. Its going to be tricky, but if there is any front office member deserving of a benefit of the doubt, its Godfather Pat Riley. Riley saved face by giving Wade $20 million. I don’t think he makes that decision twice if a better option presents itself. Wade’s one of my favorite players of all time, but he’s shooting 43 percent this year. He plays like young Flash, though the results aren’t the same. His lack of progression from young man game to old man lends itself easier reasoning for Pat Riley to cut ties, no matter how great Wade was, but only if a better option arises. Wade’s financial and loyal value runs too deep for him to leave unless another move makes the Heat a stronger contender.
Larson: I haven't done all the math on it, but from approximations Deng would have to go and pretty much most players over the Room MLE. That hurts a team's depth in a lot of ways. The Lakers situation with Kobe seems to be the worst case scenario for the Heat with Wade. If Wade keeps demanding to be paid his max, how can the Heat really say no, and what does that do to the product on the floor. I think most people would say that right now Kobe is hurting his team's product more than helping it, both on the court and in free agency where his enormous salary prevented them from having room for two max free agents. The Laker franchise will talk about how Kobe has earned the right to go out on his terms, and probably get paid on his terms too, because of all he's done for them and that makes sense, but I'm sure behind closed doors Jim Buss is praying this is his swan song year.
You ask when is the right time to let go of an dimming star player? An interesting counter example to both the Lakers and Heat are the Boston Celtics, where Danny Ainge doesn't seem to allow sentimentality or feelings of loyalty to have an ounce of consideration in how he does his business. Ainge simply wants to always do the best thing for the franchise in terms of winning a championship, and if a star reaches the threshold to where it is hurting more than helping, he takes action. Without a conscious he shipped out Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and Doc Rivers in trades when he had the chance to get something valuable in return (is there anything more appealing than those future Nets first round picks right now?). I think while fans in Boston may shed a tear and have a moment of silence, they understand what Ainge is doing is for the good of the franchise in the long run (and because they're used to that callous attitude from robot head coach Bill Belichek). Do you think the Celtics brand and cache effects how liberally Ainge can behave with old star players? The Celtics have 17 championships (though some should belong to the Clippers), and can always lean on a tradition of winning when trying to attract stars. Does that change if a team like the Hornets cut an old star because it will be harder for them to bring in free agents because they're seen as all business?
Caden: Ainge struck gold in the Nets Celtics trade of 2013. Delusional Mikhail Prokhorov believed obtaining aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce pushed the Nets into title contention. Ainge tricked everybody into thinking the trade was even. If the narrative "Garnett and Pierce have one last shot at a ring" didn’t exist, the perception on Ainge drastically changes. You’re right, the Celtics are loaded with draft picks. There exists a possibility the Celtics have four picks in the top-15. But since that trade, Ainge repeatedly attempted to lure free agent prizes to Boston. Since Ainge’s emigration of star talent, no free agents have signed with Boston. Maybe players see through the smokescreen. Maybe the Celtics brand isn’t strong enough. In my opinion, it all corresponds with the same thesis, whether it be free agents, owners, or fans themselves – what can you do for me now?
The Miami Heat possibly underestimated the value of an aging franchise player while the Lakers might have overestimated. Loyalty unquestionably plays a huge role in the NBA. Loyalty, or a lack thereof, affected the Heat, Lakers and even a few others. One other team will join the list of aging superstars with a foggy future, the Clippers.
Larson: That question of how a franchise without a winning history should act toward stars, and how much loyalty matters is going to become quickly apparent when it comes time to resign Chris Paul.
Pros: There are a lot of pros when considering why the Clippers should not even hesitate to resign Chris Paul. On "basketball reasons" alone, there are a lot of good factors pointing toward Paul's game aging well. Old Man Chris Paul has changed a lot from his New Orleans days where he was dunking on Dwight Howard. Whereas he used to rely on athleticism and speed to get to the rim and finish, currently Paul flourishes with his ball handling and being able to create just enough space to unleash his deadly mid range jump shot, of which he is leagues better than anyone else in the NBA as Kirk Goldsberry points out. Paul is such a perfectionist and a game managing savant, that it's not hard to imagine his passing continuing to be brilliant for the rest of his career. And if last season isn't a fluke, Paul has improved as a shooter from three point range which will help prolong his career. We saw how long Jason Kidd lasted with the Mavs, continuing to be a key role player in a championship, and I have no doubt Paul could match that career arc. I joked with Lucas that the injured Paul to start the season may be a preview of what he will be as he ages, and that was still productive. While he may not be able to be the best player on a title contender for the next 5 years, he could certainly be the 2nd or 3rd fiddle, which is ok when you have Blake Griffin taking the torch.
Then from a Clippers franchise perspective, there are a whole bunch of reasons why resigning Chris Paul is important. You could make the argument that Chris Paul has played the biggest role in completely transforming the Clippers organization buried under decades of ineptitude into something of respectable and a destination. If the Clippers win a championship this year or next under Chris Paul, will there be any team in the NBA more in debt to a player than the Clippers. If you're Steve Ballmer and you want to try and distance yourself from your slumlord predecessor notorious for being cheap and disloyal to Clipper players, don't you want to give Paul that Kobe's sized blank check and say you're going to be a Clipper for life, you're going to be the first jersey we retire, and you're going into the Hall of Fame as a Clipper. The Lakers, Heat, and Celtics don't need to show loyalty to prove to players they are a trustworthy organization, but the Clippers do. The significance that gesture would bring to the team with such a torrid history can't quantified, and likely outweighs any counterarguments.
Cons: The cons of resigning Paul are mainly financial and historical. Point guards don't have a great track record in NBA history of staying productive once they lose a step, and every season it seems like people are predicting it will be the year Paul slows down and diminishes, much like Tony Parker. While I hesitate to call Chris Paul injury prone (knock on wood), his bout with medical maladies doesn't inspire great confidence in anticipating how he will do as he grows older.
Plus, let's look at the financial realities of what resigning Chris Paul would look like. He has an early termination clause after the 2016-2017 season, which means that he will be 32 years old looking for a max contract. With the cap set to be at an all time high of 108 million that year, a Chris Paul max contract would be around 5 years at $204.7 million dollars. For reference, Paul would be making around $35.6 million at age 32, and $46.3 million at age 36. Those numbers are incredible. While it's hard to really put the inflated numbers of a new cap in perspective, it's easy to ask will Chris Paul really be worth about $46 million dollars at age 36? Will that end up hamstringing the Clippers with a terrible, bloated contract that they can't get out of? I think the year has already shown Blake Griffin is the Clippers best player right now and for the future, at what point to do you pivot to build around him, and would that mean not resigning Chris Paul?
Caden: Prokhorov accepted the 2013 trade despite knowing those first round draft picks will more than likely be in the lottery. Why? Because the value of winning one championship overrides the years of mediocrity. In 2017, Steve Ballmer and GM Doc Rivers will examine Chris Paul with that same thesis. Can a 32-year-old Chris Paul be a key figure in a championship team? Does his signing inhibit the team so much where they can’t produce a quality team? The contract won’t focus on the $46.3 million at the end – he more than likely won’t be worth it. The beginning years of his contract determine the worthiness.
We are also betting against Chris Paul. Paul ascertained greatness by not being normal. We are assuming his career arc is normal. His regression of athleticism provided him an unintended chance to learn how to play like an older player earlier than most. Perhaps injuries blessed Paul with a longer peak. Who knows what will happen? But I do agree with you, if the Clippers win one championship with Paul, he’ll never wear another jersey.
Larson: I think the Clippers resign Chris Paul without thinking for much of the reasons you said -- winning a championship trumps everything else. Look at Cleveland spending like $200 million this year to try and win it all. For other franchise reputation reasons I also think the Clippers need to make sure Paul is a part of their history forever, which would mean resigning him. Through all of that, I still have the slightest hesitation, wondering if we'll come to see Paul as an Albert Pujols type weight preventing Blake Griffin from competing for a championship in his prime (yes Blake is Mike Trout in this analogy). Last time Chris Paul resigned, it was a no brainer; next time, I think it warrants having a discussion.