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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Omer Asik should still be a Bull (and Landry Fields should still be a Knick)

Omer Asik is now officially a Rocket, his offer sheet (identical to that of Jeremy Lin's) going unmatched by Chicago. This gives Houston an absolute defensive wall at the centre position, someone who last year was one of the best defensive big men in the league. On a par with Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler, albeit in considerably less time. We'll see how well this holds up when he becomes a 25mpg+ player outside of the comfort of Tom Thibodeau's defensive system; nevertheless, by paying him upon a highly favourable prediction of future performance, Houston got their guy, someone who can now break out akin to how Joel Przybilla did at the same age, if not better.

Asik's value to Houston is more than it would ever have been to Chicago, which is why an expense that is difficult to justify for one team is much easier to justify for the other. In a situation very similar to that of Marcin Gortat and Orlando three years ago, Chicago had an awesome backup centre, and knew it, yet the secret was out. And while Houston could pay Asik to be a starter, Chicago couldn't. Their self-imposed budgetary restrictions, combined with the presence of having a better player in front of him (and one with whom Asik has an ill-fitting skillset, making it unlikely the two could ever play alongside each other), made it a tough ask to match. While Carlos Boozer's contract is the problem, losing others is its solution, and with Taj Gibson similarly up for a pay day, the Bulls had to choose between the two. They went for the better two-way player.

The choice Chicago faced concerned whether to play $8.3 million to a season to a player you can only play 15 minutes per game until the guy in front of him gets injured (which, while he inevitably will, is arguably a misappropriation of the very limited asset that is the Bulls's financial flexibility), or lose a defensive anchor and a key piece of the thing that keeps you competitive. That's no choice at all, a lose-lose situation. However, it didn't have to be this way.

Asik was drafted in 2008 with the 36th pick in the draft; that is to say, he was not a first rounder. As a second rounder, Asik was not bound by the rookie salary scale - as long as you have the means to do so, you can pay second rounders whatever you want. They can get the maximum, in theory. In practice, of course, they often get the minimum. A combination of lack of leverage, team's prioritising of their exceptions elsewhere, and not normally being good enough to merit anything more, leads to most second round rookies getting the smallest possible amount. And that's if they get any contract at all.

The Minimum Salary Exception - which, as its name suggest, is a salary cap exception that allows you to sign (or trade for) players earning the minimum salary - is a maximum of two years in length. This limitation became an issue in the summer of 2004 when Gilbert Arenas, who had signed a two year deal via the MSE in 2002, hit free agency. Arenas signed a two year minimum salary contract using the MSE after being drafted, and then went on to be really quite good. As a result, he merited a big pay day. But the Warriors - over the cap and thus limited to the Early Bird exception, which offered only a contract that started at the value of the Mid-Level Exception - couldn't give it to him. So when Arenas signed an offer sheet with Washington that was higher than the value of the MLE, Golden State didn't have a salary cap exception with which they could match it. And thus they watched him walk.

[NB: Carlos Boozer, himself embroiled in an Arenas situation that summer, actually signed a three year deal using part of the MLE with a team option on the third year, one which Cleveland declined in the hopes of re-signing him long term cheaply. Similar, but significantly different.]

Arenas's situation highlighted a loophole in the system, one in which a team couldn't pay its own players as much as its competitors could. That's the very thing the "Bird Clock" allegory was supposed to solve. So a remedy was sought. In the CBA negotiations the following summer, the loophole was supposedly closed with the invention of what was subsequently known as the "Arenas provision." The specifics of its details are outside the remit here, but can be found at Larry Coon's CBA FAQ - essentially, it limits the amount certain free agents can be given, while giving the incumbent team the ability to pay it too.

In the first seven years since its invention, this provision was never used. The reasons for this are probably two-fold - firstly, more teams decided it was worth cracking off a chunk of their MLE to sign second rounders (or particularly impressive undrafted rookies) to three year contracts, and secondly, there just weren't as many viable candidates. The only one there may have been was Carl Landry in 2008, yet he managed only a three year $9 million contract, not nearly big enough to invoke the provision.

This summer, though, it's been used three times. Once on Lin, once on Asik, and once on Landry Fields. None of the three offers were matched when all of them could have been. But it is more important to note that at least two of them should never have been in this situation.

As stated above, the Minimum Salary Exception offers only a maximum of two years. But the Minimum Salary Exception is a salary cap exception, meaning it is only used by teams over the cap. Teams under the cap aren't bound by any limitations other than those conferred by the size of their cap space, and in 2010, the Bulls and Knicks (infamously) both had plenty of it.

The Knicks took care of most of their offseason business early, signing and trading for Amar'e Stoudemire, signing and trading away David Lee, and outright signing Raymond Felton. It is understandable that those were priorities. But even after those moves were down, the Knicks had some money to spend, and they did so on Roger Mason and Andy Rautins. Rautins signed for the kind of contract Fields should have done, a three year contract with a slight bonus above the minimum ($600,000) in the first year. And Mason signed for $1.4 million, an odd amount to give to a man you'll play ahead of Rautins, and whose minimum salary would have been $1,146,337, of which New York would have only been on the hook of $854,389. That was $550,000 they didn't really need to spend. Even after that, though, the Knicks were enough under the cap to sign Fields without needing the Minimum Salary Exception to do it. But for whatever reason, they didn't.

Meanwhile, Chicago's LeBron-less offseason saw them pay Asik two years and $3,578,500, after he had spent two more years since being drafted developing further in his native Turkey. They spent considerably above the minimum to bring over a player whose rights they had previously traded the equivalent of three picks to obtain in the first place - indisputably, then, they valued the player. They might not have known they had an elite defensive anchor on their hands, but they suspected that there was a chance, else they would not have gone to those lengths. The question, though, is why they didn't go one length further, Asik's contract called for no third year, not even an option, and now they're paying the price for that. The question of why such a coveted long term project was not signed long term is a valid one.

This all sounds a bit hindsighty, and that is unfortunately unavoidable. But it is a struggle to see what rationale existed for giving neither of the duo three year contracts. They have now lost valuable contributors they deemed to be of excessive cost when they could have initially been signed at a negligible cost, using only the cap room they already had. Whereas it could have cost very little, it has now cost an awful lot.

It is entirely possible that the respective players and agents demanded two year contracts, in anticipation of a big pay day in year three. This, while rare and risky, worked out absolutely bloody perfectly if it was indeed planned that way. Failing that, another tenuous explanation may have been the two team's respective desires to keep open 2012 salary flexibility, a policy that seemingly required as little committed salary as possible, even the small ones. Or maybe they just didn't value them that highly.

Whatever the logic or the circumstances, though, the two teams had the opportunity to retain these players THIS summer, two summers ago. And they didn't.

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