The max contract superstar is one of the most powerful tools for building a championship team in the NBA. It allows a team to lock up a marquee player at a fraction of his actual worth. Deron Williams is a superstar, and this season he will expect a call from nearly every team that can offer a max contract, along with the incumbent Brooklyn Nets. He’s also 27 years old, so on the right end of the prime of his career. And he plays a position the Blazers have not been able to stabilize since Terry Porter. Nonetheless I would not sign him to a max contract. Here’s why.
The max contract is only valuable for a super max player
As Nate Silver points out, the only two ways to achieve success in the NBA are to either use your cap dollars efficiently or find a way to exceed the cap. In the case of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant the max contract is a no-brainer way to use cap dollars efficiently. In the case of second-tier “stars” the case is far less clear.
While evaluating team performance by simply aggregating Hollinger’s EWA (basically PER*minutes) like Silver does in his piece needs to be done with extreme caution, both EWA and WARP (Kevin Pelton’s statistic) do give some indication of how much a team is getting for its money. In both systems, Deron Williams has been worth between 10 and 13 wins a year over the past four seasons. That’s been good for a ranking anywhere between 17th and 26th in the NBA. So while not an all-NBA talent, Williams is an excellent player.
From the money perspective, a max contract beginning this year would start around 16 million dollars and escalate to over 20 million after three years. Williams would then be taking up between 1/4 and 1/3 of the team’s cap space over the course of the contract. Buying 13 wins for 1/3 of the cap space is not a horrible deal from a purely economic standpoint. If a team spends at exactly that efficiency level it can buy another 26 wins with the rest of that cap space, add those to the 11 wins a replacement team would win and is about a 50 win team. (The reason these calculations are estimated is because I don’t want to give the false gravitas of decimals where they are all pure estimations anyway. The anergies and synergies of team play, along with the lack of precision in translating WARP or EWA to team win makes any sort of precision foolhardy).
A 50 win team without flexibility
A team that signs Deron Williams takes on the burden of attempting to contend immediately. He has been anointed a superstar, having led Utah to multiple 50 win seasons and several playoff series victories. There, the narrative goes, management was unable to build a championship team around him. In a similar vein to the arguments about Anthony, however, how strong does a supporting cast have to be before we start questioning the stariness of the star?
Williams only led the Jazz in PER one season (when injuries relegated Carlos Boozer to 37 games). He was surrounded by Boozer, deadeye center Mehmet Okur, all-defensive and all around terror Andrei Kirilenko, deadeye marksman Kyle Korver, the underrated and productive Ronnie Brewer and later Paul Millsap. That’s not exactly what the Magic have around Dwight or what LeBron left in Cleveland, it’s an excellent and versatile cast of role players.
If the Blazers put in a call to Deron Williams, do they really believe they could assemble that kind of supporting cast? AK47 looks a lot like Batum’s very best case, while Aldridge is better than Boozer it doesn’t really make up for the overall strength, depth and fit of the rest of that team. So basically as a best case, the team would be telling its players and fans that it was building toward a championship when in reality, it was really paving a path to the second round.
The expectations game
My last post was indeed a defense of this sort of existence. However, that only makes sense to the extent that the team maintains the flexibility to take the next step. Signing Williams basically puts the team in the second round with no path out. As part of the sales pitch to Williams, a commitment will be made to winning immediately. Additionally, because of the perception that he is a superstar, the efforts to build through the draft will cease, and the team will probably put its stock in overrated and underperforming old guys to fill out the rotation.
The team would probably be over the cap, and use the mid-level exception each year to sign a player who would likely turn out to be a sub-par value over the course of his contract. And any and all draft picks would be traded, sacrificing upside at the altar of immediate improvement. Chad Buchanan has already shown a worrisome propensity for this. The Blazers would be left with an expensive and inflexible roster, fretting about how to make a “superstar” happy when it’s not even clear he was ever the best player on a playoff team.
Compared to this situation, I would prefer to be the Nuggets, Rockets, Jazz, or Pacers. In each case, the team has a variety of tradeable assets and is armed for a move that will truly put them over the top. Whichever team signs Deron Williams will likely just be churning stopgaps while people wonder why such a “great” player’s prime is being wasted.