Last year Russell Wilson played for $544,868. Colin Kaepernick earned just $607,922. This year, Wilson’s cap number is a little lower, while Kaepernick’s is a tick higher. Those bargains have enabled the Niners and Seahawks to spend heavily elsewhere, allotting precious cap space to defenses, offensive lines, and skill positions loaded with blue and red chippers. After the latest NFL collective bargaining agreement reversed the trend of ever increasing rookie contracts, players like Wilson and Kaepernick are now the NFL’s most valuable commodity. Yes, more valuable than Brady, Manning, and Rogers, each of who may be a superior quarterback, but would you rather have Rogers and the Packers porous defense or Kaepernick and the Niners vaunted D? In today’s NFL, elite, cheap rookie labor is king.
Enter Andrew Bynum and the Cleveland Cavaliers. No, Bynum’s not Kaepernick here, for reasons beyond his reported reluctance to pose nude for ESPN’s body issue (okay, I made that up, but you have to admit it’s at least somewhat believable). Bynum is Percy Harvin, Anquan Boldin, Cliff Avril, or Anthony Davis, players whom Seattle and San Francisco seemingly should not have been able to sign, acquire, or extend without cutting back elsewhere on the roster. Yet, each team did so with impunity. Add Harvin, keep Rice. Extend Davis, and still have enough left over for Mike Iupati’s extension later this year. Keep Willis and Bowman, Thomas and Sherman. You get the point. This is why these two teams are favorites to win the Super Bowl – SF is #2 at +800 while Seattle is tied for #3 at +1200 –even after Crabtree’s torn Achilles and Harvin’s hip surgery. (Memo to Michael Crabtree: if you haven’t already, call Kobe. Like now, and every day after this one. Follow him around if he’ll let you. Eat what eats. Sleep when he sleeps. Hell, move in with him if Vanessa’s cool with it.)
After having already signed Jarret Jack and Earl Clark to sizable contracts, the Cavs boasted an impressive roster. Featuring young blue and red chippers in Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristian Thompson, and this years’s number one overall pick, Anthony Bennett, alongside tested veterans like Jack and Varejao, the Cavs appeared to be locked and loaded for a playoff run this year. Even guys like Clark and Zeller impress at the back end of a loaded roster. So how in the hell did Cleveland still have $12 million a year to throw at the game’s second best center in Andrew Bynum? (Yeah, I know WHEN HEALTHY! But do we really need the modifier “when healthy,” or “if he can stay healthy” after every mention of Bynum’s name?) If that was surprising, how about the fact that Cleveland still has the flexibility to add Lebron next summer? I’m speechless: it’d be like finding out that Dwayne Wade pulled a Shabazz Mohammed in college, and is actually 35. Oh…wait.
Introducing Peak Performance Level
The NBA’s 1995 retooling of its rookie contract structure did away with the ridiculous sums thrown at top draft picks – it’s easy to forget deals like Chris Webber’ bizarre 15 year, $74.4 million contract– and served as the model for the NFL as it sought to help teams avoid getting JaMarcused. So why did NFL teams figure out how to leverage the young talent loophole before anyone in the NBA? Because NBA GMs are stupid, right? That’s a contributing factor in some instances. More importantly, however, crucial differences have long persisted between the two sports as to which years constitute a player’s prime.
NFL players peak earlier. Or at least so said conventional wisdom. While the likes of Kaepernick, Russell, RG3, and Luck are redefining the learning curve for quarterbacks, players at many other positions have been expected to generate prime level production, if not peak, during their rookie contracts for quite some time. (Running backs are the most notorious example, but so too do young lineman, linebackers, and safeties often peak early on in their careers.) Conversely, with just a handful of aberrations, NBA players have historically produced at the highest level while playing on their second and even third contracts.
Like the young NFL gun-slingers, premier level NBA talent is increasingly rendering obsolete historical expectations about peak performance years. Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant each needed four seasons to begin producing at the rates they’re now famous for. Perhaps not so coincidentally, both Kobe and KG played their best basketball in years 5 to 13. That career trajectory hasn’t applied in the same way to Lebron, who began performing at an all-world level in just his second year, and hasn’t looked back since. Of course, we don’t know yet for how long Lebron’s peak will endure, and one can draw parallels to Kobe and KG’s arcs in that Lebron too shifted into a new gear in his fifth season. The difference is that Lebron was already a title-winning caliber centerpiece in year two. Of course, any analysis projecting player trends based on Lebron is destined to miss the mark.
But it’s not just Lebron. Evidence is emerging that players are getting better earlier in their careers.
Peak Performance Level. If we define peak performance level (“PPL”) somewhat arbitrarily to require a player to appear in at least 65 games, play no less than 35 mpg., with a PER of 22.00 or greater, intriguing trend lines begin to emerge in the data. (The PPL threshold is not entirely arbitrary; no team, save the 2004 Detroit Anomalies featuring a high PER of Billups’s 18.66, has captured the title without at least one player achieving a PER of 22.00 or greater.)
Indeed, most of the game’s best players drafted in 2002 or later, when John Hollinger began tracking PER, have reached PPL in their third seasons. Take a look at the data:
- Amare Stoudemire exploded in year three with a PER of 26.71. He improved on that mark only once, and just slightly, over his next 9 seasons.
- Chris Bosh got there in his third season, turning in a 23.23 PER. He’s turned in a superior performance just twice in last seven years.
- Carmelo nearly hit the mark spot-on in year three, with a 22.10 PER that he’s improved upon significantly just once (last year, 24.83) in the last seven years (he did worse in four of those seasons).
- Derek Rose earned the MVP award in his third season with a PER of 23.62, and then regressed ever so slightly to 23.10 in year four prior to suffering the most epic injury the NBA has witnessed (Or does it just seem that way?)
- Durant hit PPL in year three, accumulating a PER of 26.23. Since then, in just one of three seasons has his PER jumped by any significant degree (last year’s 28.35 rating). Notably, his fourth year rating dropped to 23.70.
- Russel Westbrook reached the threshold in his third season, with a PER of 23.63. His rating has not changed significantly since.
- Blake Griffin nearly qualified in his rookie year, just missing with a PER of 21.93, and broke into the ranks the following year with a PER of 23.5, before regressing slightly last season to 22.44. Note: (1) Blake missed the threshold last year, playing just 32.5 mpg; and (2) technically, he reached PPL in his third season, since he missed his entire first season due to injury.
- Brandon Roy peaked in his third season, when his PER reached 24.08. He would never again qualify.
- Kevin Love got there in his third season, earning a PER of 24.39. He improved a bit the next season, and of course, was derailed by injuries last season.
- Dwayne Wade got there earlier, turning in a PER of 23.10 in his second season. Wade peaked in his sixth season, and hasn’t qualified the past two seasons due to insufficient playing time.
- Chris Paul entered the league performing at peak level, but enjoyed what now appears to be his career apex in years three and four, when he turned in PERs of 28.39 and 30.04 respectively. In the four years since then, he’s averaged just a shade over a 25.00. Last season, his decreased minutes of about 33 per game disqualified him.
- Yao Ming is a special case. He would’ve hit PPL in his third season with a PER of 23.25 had his minutes not been so heavily restricted. A strict application of the criteria, however, yields just one PPL season (his sixth, PER of 22.55) for Yao.
- Dwight didn’t get there until year four, when he earned a PER of 22.61, then improved significantly the following season to 25.44.
- Al Jefferson likewise took until his fourth season to reach PPL. That year, his PER was 22.84, and hasn’t improved appreciably since.
- LaMarcus Aldridge early got there in his fifth season (21.57), and finally crossed the threshold his sixth year with a PER of 22.73.
- James Harden hit the mark in his fourth season with a with a PER of 23.00
- Kyrie Irving (2nd season, 21.51)
- Anthony Davis (1st season, 21.80)
- John Wall (2nd season, 20.91)
- DeMarcus Cousins (3rd season, 21.72
- Steph Curry (4th season, 21.34)
- Brook Lopez (5th season 24.81 PER last year, *DNQ 30.1 mpg)
- Greg Monroe (3rd season, 22.09 PER in year two, *DNQ 31.5 mpg)
The Third Year Rule
That’s it. The list’s composition largely is unsurprising. A few names that missed the cut might raise a few eyebrows. Rondo and D-Will never qualified, nor did Joakim Noah, Al Horford, or Josh Smith. And if they haven’t done so by now, unless Rondo fixes his shot, there’s little reason to expect that any will do so during his career. Additionally, while it’s not shocking that Paul George hasn’t yet qualified, the gap between his results and reputation is unexpectedly wide. Last year represented his best performance, with a PER of 16.84. (If you haven’t already, scroll down to my take on Paul George’s inflated reputation here.) Otherwise, the list consists of the best players drafted since 2002.
It’s also notable that the PPL standard is especially exacting for big men, who struggle to stay sufficiently healthy to log enough minutes over 65 games. It’s also readily apparent that big men take a bit longer to develop. But that’s not really news.
The salient data point is that 11 of the 16 players who reached PPL did so by their third season. Only slightly less significant is the fact that for most of these players, that level of play was not merely a stepping-stone to greater things; more often than not, these players’ performance plateaued or regressed over the remainder of their careers to date.
This data cuts the legs out from under the widely held belief that most great players’ apexes will coincide with either roughly seasons 6-10 or ages 28-33. That assumption simply no longer is defensible.
PPL is not synonymous with a player’s apex. The correlation is unquestionably positive, and in some cases, they coincide neatly. In others, however, reaching PPL merely marks one progression in the continued ascendance of a player’s performance. This seems especially true for the truly transcendent player: Shaq, Duncan, and LeBron all reached PPL no later than their second seasons, but each improved to a significant degree as his career progressed. Certainly, Shaq was a backboard-breaking monster in 1992. It’s quite likely that he was good enough to win a title then with the right supporting cast. But he’d have been no match for 2000 Shaq, who had added an underappreciated array of post moves and elite passing to his otherworldly physique. These are the exceptions.
The rule is that great players are ready to win in their third seasons.
Applying the Rule: The 2 year Window
From the rule, it necessarily follows that it almost always makes little sense to continue in the roster-building phase of the team development cycle once a young player has reached PPL. This is reinforced by the NBA’s rookie contract structure. Because the collective bargaining agreement locks in first round draft picks salaries at bargain levels for four years, teams will have just two expected years of PPL without paying for it. Strike while the iron his hot – it will not remain so for long.
Lessons from the Gridiron. San Francisco and Seattle have a two and three year window, respectively (last year felt like Kaepernick’s rookie year, but was actually his second season with the Niners), to surround their starting quarterbacks with the most expensive talent that they’ll play with for the rest of their careers. After that period, barring a tremendous regression, each will quite likely exact no less than $15-$20 million a year. That money will have to come from somewhere else on the roster.
It’s easy to point to out that Kaepernick and Wilson will likely improve upon their first year starting performances. Fair enough. Each very well may develop into superior players over the next five years or so. The question then becomes, will that improvement be enough to offset the loss of talent across their rosters? I doubt it. Consider this: in San Francisco, the difference between Kaepernick’s current $740,000 cap number and a projected cap number of $15 million is roughly equal to the 2013 cap numbers for Vernon Davis, Justin Smith, and Patrick Willis. Yes, Willis and Smith’s numbers are disproportionately low due to past payments, but Davis’s number is especially high at $8.5 million. Take three different players if you will – the QB salary delta is likewise tantamount to Anquan Boldin, Joe Staley, and Navorro Bowman. The same will more or less be true in Seattle. You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. New contracts for Kaepernick and Wilson will have serious talent costs for their teams. It’s hard to argue that either player will improve so much that the pain from those cuts won’t be acute.
But the NFC West behemoths get it. Their offseason transactions demonstrate their recognition of the finite windows in which they operate. This is their best chance to win.
The Case Study. Timing is everything in the NBA too. Understanding when to flip the switch from roster building to contention is the paramount consideration. Practically, flipping the switch means acquiring veteran talent to compliment a younger core. Do it too soon, and you won’t have enough building blocks. But wait just a season too long, and what once was cheap labor occupies the precious cap space that could’ve brought in the star who pushed you over the top. It can be the difference between a title and a tease. Let’s start with the tease, since it’s never quite as much fun to praise anyone without first dragging someone else down.
Let’s take the Oklahoma City Thunder as a case study. The revered Sam Presti did considerably too little, a little too late. OKC went three-fourths-in on Durant and Westbrook early in their careers.
OKC was ready to storm the league in 2010 – few realized it until it scared the shit of the Lakers in the first round that year. The time to strike was 2009, just after they’d selected their third top-5 draft pick in James Harden. Durant would reach PPL that season, and in retrospect, with the data now available, it would have been shocking had he not done so. Even if we can’t blame Presti for not knowing that his team was ready to make a quantum leap, we certainly can question his reluctance to bolster a team that was clearly no longer amongst the cellar dwellers. He had his four-man lottery pick core, and a fifth prospect in Ibaka who he’d sagely snagged later in the draft. That’s it. You don’t get more – that stockpile of talent, especially with a transcendent player like Durant, can only be held down for so long.
There’s some evidence that Presti knew it: remember the botched Tyson Chandler deal of 2009 that would’ve brought in the defensive ace for the chump change of Chris Wilcox, Joe Smith, and Devon Hardin? Even after what is in retrospect a colossal error, the Thunder were armed with roughly $12 million to acquire the tipping point player. Presti didn’t use it. He could’ve outbid the Lakers for Lamar Odom or Ron Artest, or the Jazz for Paul Milsap. (Of course, that’s easy to say now. The Thunder could’ve just as easily outbid Atlanta for Mike Bibby, or tried to convince Hedo Turgoglu to take less. Surprisingly, they couldn’t have beat Detroit’s offer to Ben Gordon.)
Are we sure that 2010 playoff series against LA wouldn’t have gone differently with one of those three on the Thunder? I can’t be, and that doubt doubles with respect to Odom, whose departure would’ve dealt a critical blow to the Lakers. What if they’d simply flanked their dynamic perimeter quartet with solid veteran contributors like Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion? Of course, we’ll never know. But I suspect that the Thunder missed its window to strike.
Lessons Learned. The OKC model has been the blueprint for NBA roster building for at least four years. Rosters throughout the league exhibit a similar design: (1) clear the decks; (2) make multiple high lottery selections; (3) surround those would-be cornerstones with players who won’t poison the culture or play well enough to meaningfully affect the team’s win total; and (4) wait to strike until the big guns have matured. Some have just begun (Orlando, Philadelphia), while others have either just passed their decision point (Golden State, New Orleans, and Cleveland) or are rapidly approaching it (Washington and Detroit).
Borrowing from the Niners’ and Seahawks’ successful strategies can fix the OKC model’s flaws. And it appears that NBA teams just might be catching on. Teams are monitoring the fourth step especially closely. Of those teams that have reached or are nearing the inflection point, New Orleans, Detroit, and Golden State join Cleveland in appearing to have grasped the lessons from the gridiron. All four teams have rushed to surround centerpieces on inexpensive contracts with veteran talent to win now with varying degrees of success.
It’s apparent that Golden State struck the wrong chord with David Lee and Andrew Bogut. While Thompson and Barnes remain on dirt-cheap deals, Curry’s extension demanded careful manipulation to bring Igoudala into the fold. And one could easily make the case that while Detroit’s timing has been impeccable – picking up Monroe, then Knight, then, Drummond, and striking this summer with Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings (subbing for Knight) – it’s far from clear that it possesses the elite level talent required to contend.
On the other hand, application of the three-year rule suggests that widespread skepticism of the Pelicans moves is off base. Initially, like many others, I’d suspected that Jrue Holiday would make the Pelicans just good enough to lament tying up all that money in Tyreke Evans. After examining the PPL data, however, it appears that Anthony Davis is much closer to being ready to win than I’d thought. This means two things: (1) even without those moves, the Pelicans might have been good enough to miss out on another lottery building block, and (2) Davis may very well be the rare player who expands the window from two to three years. If either of those circumstances holds, then the Pelicans’ offseason transactions more nearly resemble strokes of genius than an ill advised fore inspired by years of disappointing results.
That leaves us with the Cavs. Here’s why Cleveland has played the shrewdest hand:
Cleveland is Oklahoma City in 2009. Entering his pivotal third season, Kyrie Irving is Russell Wilson, just like Kevin Durant once was Colin Kaepernick. Rather than wait for direct evidence that the team is ready to make the leap, Cleveland’s taken a leap of faith. Surrounding Kyrie with Bynum and Jack manifests that confidence, and gives him the Seahawks defense before the tab arrives with high dollar extensions due Irving, Waiters, Thompson, and Bennett. Indeed, while the Warriors and Pelicans have maxed out their credit cards for the foreseeable future, Cleveland’s struck early enough that – leaving flexibility to strengthen the team further should Bynum disappoint.
NBA history suggests that teams like this don’t win the title. Certain rights of passage are required, and teams emerge victorious only after taking their lumps. But history is dynamic. Not so long ago, it was unthinkable that a rookie would carry his team to the Super Bowl. No one foresaw the gathering storm of elite young quarterbacks on minimum contracts. That doesn’t mean Cleveland will win the title. It does mean that a strategic vision, fused with the new learning curve for elite NBA talent will soon change the way we evaluate such expectations. If history is any guide, such a team will have to shock the world first.
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