A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

On Brandon Jennings’ surprisingly reasonable, John Wall’s unsurprisingly egregious and Jeff Teague’s dully expected contracts

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Wizards v/s Thunder 03/14/11

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This summer, three starting point guards in John Wall, Brandon Jennings and Jeff Teague received post rookie deal contracts, Wall’s an extension a year early for 5 years, 80 million and Jennings and Teague through restricted free agency for 3 years 24 million and 4 years, 32 million respectively. I thought comparing their careers and salaries was relevant.

Brandon Jennings has had the feel of a destined to be overpaid player for years, but by the end, his flaws were apparent enough to “only” get that 8 million a year salary in the Detroit S&T for Brandon Knight. Has the pendulum of hate swung too far for Jennings?

Jennings had an alarming .399 FG% last year, but this isn’t reflective of his efficiency. When taking into account his 3 point shooting, a .510 TS% is more respectable, if below average. Dean Oliver’s Individual ORTG, perhaps my choice for the most important stat of all – has Jennings at a league average 106 the last two seasons. In comparison Jeff Teague who the Bucks tried to sign, also had an 106 ORTG last year. John Wall, who I will get to later, had 105. Jrue Holiday who went for a huge trade price to New Orleans, had a paltry 99 ORTG. Knight who Detroit dealt for Jennings, had only an ORTG of 98. Jennings’ efficiency looks respectable in ORTG because of a surprisingly low turnover rate (2.5/game) for amount of the shots (15.6 FGA, 3.5 FTA/game) and assists (6.5/game) he records. There is value in a player who uses many possessions at an average rate. Someone has to take those possessions and some players are more efficient if they don’t have to take a huge role. For example on Milwaukee last year, the players more efficient than Jennings were Ersan Ilyasova (114), Mike Dunleavy (111), Larry Sanders (109), Ekpe Udoh (109), J.J. Redick (109), Samuel Dalembert (108), all of whom rely on finishing shots at 3 or the rim players like Jennings help create for them off the dribble. The other reason average efficiency can have value, is that the Bucks had a better than average team defense at 105.2 DRTG. Thus even if Jennings efficiency wasn’t above league average, it was better than the teams the Bucks were playing, arguably thus contributing to wins. Among other all-in one stats, Jennings’ 5.8 WS and 4.1 WP are above average and comparable to Jeff Teague’s 6.1 WS and 5.2 WP.

One can make the case that a more fair price for Jennings and Teague is a slightly above league average 6 million a year, not 8. However, Jennings and Teague are getting paid for potential to get better in addition to current production. The best case scenario for both players is Mike Conley, Jr., who’s 5 year 45 million contract at the time of the signing was overpriced compared to his production, but his improvement has now made the deal look more than worth it. George Hill is another PG who received a contract in line with Jennings and Teague on a per year basis at 5 years 40 million, who’s gone from seemingly overpaid at the time, to a bargain if anything. If Jennings and Teague can lock down a starting place for Detroit and Atlanta along those lines, their teams will be happy. If not, the contracts are not as egregious or long enough to be killers. Neither contract is a home run, but if both teams are trying to follow the lead of the Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers in constructing their teams, it may do.

John Wall’s contract at 16 million per year over 5 seasons, is harder to stomach. Has Wall been any better than Jennings and Teague in his career? As mentioned, he was slightly less efficient than them last year – and that was a spike upward from his first two seasons. Wall uses more possessions than Jennings and Teague at 20.9 FGA + 0.44*FTA + TOV, to Jennings’ 19.6 and Teague’s 16.3, but as he hasn’t proven to be better than average at using them, it’s debatable how much value there is in that extra volume. Wall is by far the best at getting to the rim and free throw line, but also easily the worst outside shooter of the three. All three are mediocre at best scorers right now, but when added to above average passing ability, it’s enough for average production as a starter.

Most of where Wall getting paid twice as much comes from, is he’s deemed to have star potential that Jennings and Teague lack. Wall was an undisputed #1 pick and #1 high school recruit and is one of the most physically gifted point guards of all time, with a perfect combination of athleticism and size. But many mistakes in the NBA have been made ignoring how much of innate talent exists outside the realm of physical talents. It’d be a fair argument to say Jennings and Teague’s superior shooting results throughout their careers, comes from having better shooting talent. It’s true that Wall can improve his outside shooting from this point, however so can Jennings and Teague. Jennings hit 37.5% of his 3s and Teague 35.9%, to Wall’s 26.7%. While Wall’s improvement at his best case scenario may make him a 3 point shooter in the mid 30 %s, the best case scenario for Jennings and Teague’s shooting is that they break the 40% mark. In other words, Wall can improve from awful 3 point shooting to average, but Jennings and Teague plausibly can make as relevant an improvement from good 3 point shooting, to great/elite. That’s not to mention that in midrange shooting as well, it’s as plausible Jennings and Teague become league leaders at the position, as it is Wall becomes respectable.

The other part of talent that’s relevant of course, is between the ears – the instincts and feel and mental affinity for the game. One worrying sign for John Wall is he can play the game “too fast”, a player who drives to the rim and has little fluid sense of where he is in relation to teammates. In fact, Wall was the subject of the best example I’ve seen yet, of  someone in the NBA discussing feel for the game. Most would probably say Jeff Teague has a greater control and sense of “pace” to his game. It’s harder to convince someone that Jennings has a more natural feel to his game than Wall because of the poor shots he puts up, but I personally see the craftier and more controlled player, something he may learn to grow into as he becomes a grizzled veteran.

In other words, while Wall is undoubtedly by far the greater physical specimen, you can argue pound for pound, Jennings and Teague are more talented at playing and seeing the game, leading to similar production 3-4 years into their career.

There are reasons why the Wizards gave a maximum extension to John Wall. They didn’t want the risk of him taking the qualifying offer next season hanging over their heads and perhaps it was a relationship move with them. It looks like they assumed Wall getting a maximum contract next summer was inevitable – and it may have been. And on one hand, if the Wizards had a change of management or heart, Wall’s contract is unlikely to hold them down. Due to his pedigree he’ll be tradable for years. Rudy Gay had worst-case scenario production after his max deal and Memphis had no problem trading him, even getting a good prospect in Ed Davis for him. With even more pedigree than Gay, Wall likewise just about can’t play bad enough to not have trade demand.

The problem for the Wizards and this contract is in two ways. One is that by giving Wall a max a year early, they put themselves at a major health liability. Wall sat out half of last season with a knee injury and the Wizards have had a horrible history with players and health recently, whether it’s related to flaws in their medical staff or luck. The difference between Wall’s health going in a terrible direction after his extension and if they had waited for his RFA, is obviously enormous – enough alone to make the extension a bad idea.

The second major issue is simply that if indeed Wall ends up only a league average or slightly better player (worth 6 to 8 million), even if he remains a trade asset on a max deal, they’d be in a position win more games if not having that contract. Average PGs like Luke Ridnour and Ramon Sessions can be found easily enough and are close enough in production to 2012-2013 Wall, that simply starting them and then spending 10 mil+ on other players, is in my opinion likely to lead to a better team. It goes against conventional wisdom to think the Wizards franchise could have a better chance making the playoffs in 2014-2015 after trading John Wall and starting Ramon Sessions instead, but if they spent the freed up finances well, that may very well be the case.

As long as he stays healthy, John Wall’s contract won’t kill the Wizards because of its tradability. What’s more likely to kill the Wizards, is if Wall remains average and they hold onto the contract for years. At the moment what can said about it, is that it’s enormously above what his production so far in his career has been – and that on top of it, was committed a year earlier than it needed to be. With those two facts, it’s hard to do anything but pan it.

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Written by jr.

August 2, 2013 at 9:33 pm

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