Started From The Bottom, Now Where?

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“Started from the bottom, now we here.” A catchy hook made famous by Drake and a line that many players in the NBA relate to. The big contract is seen as the moment a player has made it, where all the hard work has paid off and they can potentially set themselves (plus their families) up for decades to come. While those drafted at the pointy end of the lottery may live out this dream right away, there are much harder routes taken by most others.

The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement has some fascinating quirks, which often help extend careers and give players a greater opportunity. Perhaps the greatest feature of the CBA is the Minimum Player Salary Exception, which enables teams to sign Free Agents for two years maximum on a minimum salary. The salary itself is based on years of experience in the NBA, with every year up to 10 attracting a higher figure. The quirk is that only the two years of experience salary ($1.47 Million in 17/18) goes against the salary cap and the NBA reimburses the team the remainder of the salary paid. 

It is a feature that not only helps teams balance their books but also has a direct effect on lengthening the careers of players within the NBA. The CBA also has a number of other exceptions, aimed at giving teams further flexibility and players an opportunity to potentially take a chance to play in a good situation to prove their worth.

For some, it can take one year minimum contract after one year minimum contract before they see the guarantees of multiple years and millions of dollars. For others, they may have already received the spoils early in their career – often before they deserved it – and one-year exception deals are their lifeline to remaining in the NBA. Yet, all those who sign short-term deals are fishing for the same thing. A chance to prove their worth on and off the court, with the hook this time being; “Now Where?”

In the past five offseason’s (12/13 – 16/17), approximately 137 NBA players with 2+ years of NBA experience have signed a one-year minimum or other exception and remained with the team for the entirety of the season. Once the season ends, there are essentially four pathways; yet another minimum, a larger one year deal, the security of multiple years or no new offer at all.

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Betting on yourself with a one-year exception deal or having no choice but to take the minimum has wildly varied results. If the last five years have shown anything, it is that once a player enters this phase of their career, they have very little chance of getting out. Roughly 40% of NBA players who find themselves signing one-year deals using an exception, are out of the league the very next season. Another 37% are offered just another one year deal, only 9% of which get paid above the minimum. Which leaves the lucky 23% of players who turn their one year gamble into multiple years continuing in the NBA. If they’re not waived, of course.

The reality is that a one year deal using an exception for any NBA player with two years or more experience, is often a one-way ticket to retirement. For every Nene converting his room exception deal in 16/17 to a multi-year offer from the Rockets or Matt Barnes going from a minimum with the Clippers in 12/13 to three more guaranteed years (then more and then a ring), there are plenty more who never see such luck.

There are 37 players with 2+ years experience, currently tied to a one year deal at the minimum or other exception in the 17/18 NBA Season. The odds are stacked slightly more favourably for seven of them; Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams, Nick Young, Aron Baynes, Anthony Tolliver, Tyreke Evans and Tarik Black – who all signed for more than the veteran minimum. For the other 30, it is a slightly harder walk up hill where the odds of never returning to the NBA are much higher (43% compared to 17% for others) and the odds of a larger deal much lower (26% compared to 70%).

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The good news is the majority are getting a chance to play. As of the Thanksgiving Day break, all but 10 players had logged at least 100 minutes on the hardwood. Evans leads the way with 479 minutes logged for the Grizzlies, while other teams are getting huge minutes out of some bargain minimum signings like Luc Mbah A Moute, Mario Chalmers and Jameer Nelson. When factoring in Player Efficiency Rating, only 14 players are performing above the league average of 15. David West appears a star on that measure, with 196 minutes logged and a PER of 26.3 while on court, while Jarrett Jack’s 391 minutes seem less impressive when looking at his PER of just 9.2.
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After shedding the 10 players who are yet to log 100 minutes this season, a sample of 27 players remains. Looking at Usage Percentage and Box Plus Minus illustrates just how much teams are relying on these bargain buys and how they are performing with that responsibility. With rumours of Derrick Rose considering retirement, it’s important to note he performs the worst out of the remaining pool when it comes to BPM. A -7.5 for Rose, all while holding a 25.9 USG% while on court for the Cavs. West (7.5 BPM) and Evans (5.2) feature heavily again, while Anthony Tolliver sneaks into the top five in BPM at 2.7 with just 15.3 USG%.
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BPM won’t always illustrate the full picture and therefore Win Shares per 48 is another way to look at players impact. With a league average rating of .100, anything higher means these one year rentals are certainly pulling their weight. Notable positives in this measure, outside of those already mentioned; Willie Reed and Omri Casspi, who play significant backup roles for their respective teams and perform admirably. Those who clearly don’t; Arron Afflalo, Ian Clark, Tony Allen and you guessed it, Rose.

Of course, when it comes to what each of these players has on the line, not all is equal. Jameer Nelson and Dwyane Wade have already received compensation this season before being waived and Wade’s $12.8 million average season wage dwarfs Mbah A Moute’s $25 million in total earnings over nine years. However if history suggests anything, it’s Mbah A Moute’s current production that holds him in good stead for being in the lucky 23%. While Wade might only be producing numbers worthy of a string of minimum deals to finish his career, unless a team falls for the reputation instead.

Tyreke Evans is doing everything he can to secure a longer term deal and only a Grizzlies tank job can slow him down or worse, make his numbers appear meaningless. David West is having a helluva send off while it might be time for Andrew Bogut and Tony Allen to consider following West’s lead. As for Afflalo, he may not even get the choice. The middle pack of players are likely to teeter between minimum offers for 18/19 or no offers at all, but they are bookended by two interesting names to watch. Clark and Reed.

It sounds like an accounting firm and they could be very well counting their money soon, with Clark dangerously close to never getting another chance to step out of the Warriors shadow and Reed possibly just a DeAndre Jordan trade away in recouping some of that lost money from a botched 2017 summer.


All stats current as of 25 November, 2017.

Info courtesy of: Basketball Reference, Basketball Insiders & Keith Smith

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