I just want to go on a quick tangent about why I think it is important to be conservative with NBA roster decisions, particularly in regards to free agents. If you're familiar with the site and its main tenets none of this will be surprising.
I believe the success of a NBA team, especially a very good team, depends largely on who its best two or three players are. It's important that all your starters are decent, and a solid bench is a nice luxury, but the key thing is
always your top two or three guys.
Everything else trickles down from your top players. So I am very willing to pay my top two or three guys big, big money. As long as they can produce at an All-Star level, or close to it, they are worth it.
As we know, these kind of star players rarely switch teams via free agency - because the team they are on can give them more money. So these upper echelon players are usually not realistic targets in free agency. Realistic targets in free agency are usually not nearly this good.
I do not believe players #5 through #15 on most NBA rosters need to be paid big money. However, they are the type of players that make up the majority of the league, and they are the free agents most likely to be available in the Summer. These "average" players simply don't deserve huge contracts, because there are too many other players that are similar to them. Therefore when these kind of players become free agents, they are exactly the type of player to avoid throwing lots of money at.
What many NBA teams fail to understand is that good players can simply become adequate players pretty quickly. The drop-off in talent is not that much. There are many, many average-type players in the league. There are not nearly as many excellent players.
So I think teams should be reluctant to commit long-term, expensive contracts to free agents that have been occasionally superb, but usually are about average. If the player ends up only slightly regressing from his peak performance, he will be highly overpaid.
Having such a conservative philosophy about free agents (and players in general) can have several drawbacks - one being that inevitably you will end up losing some good players because you were unwilling to pay them their "market" value.
I'm willing to live with that. That's because grossly overpaying players who end up not being good is the worst way to destroy your payroll. I simply do not want to risk doing that. If I miscalculate and lose a couple of very good (but not great) players by incorrectly projecting their future production, so be it.
Let me give you an example. I mildly criticized the Phoenix Suns for giving Goran Dragic a 4 year, $30 million deal over the Summer. I said that while Dragic has had his moments of excellence in the NBA, he has never consistently proven himself as an average starting point guard. Up until last season he had never been one of the four best players on a NBA team. So while the Dragic deal on paper seemed completely reasonable for a point guard with some talent, I would not have done it.
This season Dragic is making me eat my words. He is playing like a borderline All-Star and has been Phoenix's best player. The deal now looks like an absolute bargain.
But even though I was wrong about Dragic, I feel completely comfortable in my logic for not initially endorsing the deal. If Dragic turns out to play as well as he has - good. But last Summer the chances just seemed too high that Dragic was not going to perform at that high of a level over the next four years. I don't believe in giving big contracts to those type of players, even if it turns out I'm being too cautious. (It's also worth noting that even though Dragic is having a very good year, the Suns are bad.)
I encourage taking calculated risks, but never being reckless. For instance, I understood why the Philadelphia 76ers traded for Andrew Bynum. It was a calculated risk, and it now looks like it has failed them, but the 76ers at least knew that they were getting a fantastic player if Bynum was healthy. But paying big money to a player you "hope" will be good (like Dragic) is too risky for me. You only want to commit big money to a player who you know has a strong likelihood of being damn good.
An expensive free agent needs to play at a high level, because otherwise it is so much smarter to sign another guy for the fraction of his price. Decent players are surprisingly easy to find. Matt Barnes, Andray Blatche, Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson, for instance, all had trouble landing roster spots with any team this season. All four are currently making significant contributions to playoff teams - and playing for the league minimum. Solid contributors do not have to be paid $6 million annually, or anything close to it, to be helpful.
Ersan Ilyasova had a career year in '11-'12. The Milwaukee Bucks resigned him for 4 years, $32 million guaranteed. This year Ilyasova has slightly regressed and is having his minutes stolen away by Larry Sanders - who is playing far better than Ilyasova at a fraction of the price. For every success story like Dragic and the Suns, there are just as many stories like Ilyasova and the Bucks. This is the reality of the league. Most NBA players have a skill level that is somewhat comparable with one another, and good players can dip and become only average at the drop of a hat.
Naturally everybody wants as many good players on their team as possible, but what I am saying is that it's nothing worth obsessing over. Obsess over finding a way to get three stars, three of the best 50 players in the world. The rest pretty much takes care of itself.
I am not saying, incidentally, that you should be content having terrible players on your roster. Look at the Cleveland Cavaliers. They have Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao, and both are playing at an All-Star level. But they have nobody else. The rest of their starters are mediocre, and the bench is miserable. You do not want to be the Cavs. If they had a few more league average players on their team they would be going to the playoffs instead of the lottery.
Through the draft and intelligent veteran free agent signings, you should always be able to fill the less important part of your roster with acceptable pieces. You do not want more than one or two bad players on your team - there are too many better alternatives out there, either in the D-League or elsewhere.
So a NBA team should focus on trying to have a few great players and no terrible players, and a team should only pay its great players a huge salary. Outside of a team's starters no player should really need to make more than a few million dollars a year. These are the keys to success for a good team mindful of the salary cap. You need to draft well, and you need to be conservative with the type of players you give big deals to. It sounds boring and dull, and it works.