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The Problem That Comes With Paying for Potential

Years ago, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were on Oprah together. When the first lady of talkshows brought up salaries, Jordan was quick to point out how young players were paid off potential instead of production, which he believed hindered the actual potential of these players, as they stopped working for it. Jordan admittedly generalized in his stance, but at its core, the argument holds some water.

Harrison Barnes, still just 23, recently rejected a contract worth $64 million over four years from Golden State. That’s within his rights of course, and his thought process is likely that he can get more in the open market next offseason, which might very well be true.

But therein lies the problem, and it’s where the perpetual circle of financial concern amongst owners begins. It’s one thing to pay stars big money. They produce on the court, attract fans, win games and generally make for solid investments. Players strictly paid off potential, however, usually doesn’t.

Barnes, while undoubtedly capable of producing more on a team with a bigger role, still lacks an argument to be paid more than $16 million a year, but is going to get that type of money from someone regardless. He can’t create his own offense (he was assisted on 71.2 percent of his made shots), is no more than a decent defender whose influence has been pumped up due to playing alongside Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut, and so far, he’s only shown the capability of scoring from three spots on the floor; the two corners, or at the rim:

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Even with an increased cap, there’s zero logic in paying Barnes that type of dough, and yet this lack of logic is somehow even expected by the basketball community, recognized even as simply a future fact. It’s reached the point where decisions to pay big bucks to young players have even begun to be praised. Notice how fan bases relish in the fact that their 15-minute/four-point youngster is now locked up on a huge deal for another four years, all while contributing nothing but intrigue for the future. It’s a symptom of a system that is shooting itself in the foot, and effectively rewarding those who can’t, as opposed to those who can.

I recently wrote about mid-range salary players and how they’re becoming underpaid and even ignored. That’s built off the premise that teams wish to pay for stars and potential players, with nothing interfering in-between. Barnes fall into that second category, despite actually having nearly 8,000 career minutes (regular season and playoffs) to his name. So the argument being made on his behalf here isn’t the good old “lack of minutes and opportunity,” but rather “he would do more with lesser players around him.” When discussing young players, the narrative changes to accommodate each player, deservingly or not, as a way of reasoning a future overpay.

The players shouldn’t be blamed in all this. They’re just accepted money being offered to them. You and I would do the same. But for some, the motivation factor stops after the first big hit. That’s somewhat understandable. If you’re a 22-year old kid who received $70+ million over a four-year window, where is your mind going to be at? Does the money act solely as a sign of respect, to which you return to the gym early and put up shots, or does it empower you to the point where a sense of entitlement takes over your life?

Not all players fall into that second category, thankfully. But those who do will have a warped view of themselves for the remainder of their careers, potentially ruining whatever greatness they could’ve had otherwise. For the record, Barnes isn’t one of those players. He’s a starter on a championship team, and he wasn’t offered that role if he didn’t put in the work. The question here is if Barnes, from the point of signing a new deal and onwards, would be satisfied with a role as the fifth wheel as long as he got paid. If so, he’ll top out as a decent role player which is far shy of the expectations that come with such a contract. If not, then it might turn out to be a proper investment, assuming of course there’s truth in the ideology that he’ll break out when on his own.

Did you see what just happened? I played directly into the hand of the “what if” scenario that teams will be using to justify paying Barnes somewhere in the range of $70 million, despite the fact that his level of production certainly doesn’t merit it whatsoever. I did that, because it’s become such a public mindset and such an indoctrinated way of thinking that I couldn’t help myself. Owners are the same way. They’re scared that their first-round draft pick from a few years ago is going to leave them and blow up somewhere else. They overspend out of pure fear. Fear created by opposing owners and general managers who sign these players to huge offer sheets, hoping on the off-chance that the price becomes too steep for the original team to not match.

What that ends up with is still an overpaid player, only he’s wearing a different jersey.

What teams need to do is cherish restricted free agency, and focus more on the available talent that now linger around the league. Unless of course the players in question are of Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler quality, in which case you’re sitting in a sweet spot where you know you’re guaranteed a certain level of production, and thus won’t need to worry one bit if someone swoops in and offers them a max offer sheet that you’re undoubtedly going to match anyway.

Or, teams could instead use the Utah Jazz mantra, which this year was pretty damn clever. They knew Enes Kanter wanted out of Utah, and they weren’t necessarily that keen on him anyway with Rudy Gobert making strides behind him in the rotation. So they shipped him off to Oklahoma City, who for unknown reasons were willing to give the Jazz a protected first-rounder and the rights to German center Tibor Pleiss, who just finished EuroBasket averaging 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 20 minutes a night, all while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 92.3 percent from the line.

Basically, Utah dealt away a present, and future, headache and avoided restricted free agency altogether, which was a good idea given that they didn’t want to hang onto Kanter anyway, especially at the price tag of the $70 million he’d later be attached to. Instead, they wanted a return on their former top three draft pick, and they made out well all things considered. Given that the team also traded away Deron Williams right before he was looking at an extension, that’s further evidence that they’re an organization who understands who they wish to have around, and who they don’t. Williams was ultimately unwanted in Utah, and the Jazz secured themselves Derrick Favors for him.

Utah’s method is almost provocatively simple and effective, even if they aren’t a playoff team yet. They identify future problems, and remove them right before the storm is about to hit, leaving their trade partners to clean up the eventual mess. If that means sacrificing young talent, and Williams was just 26 at the time, then so be it. It takes balls of steel to take that approach, but it’s one that helps exclude future problems, especially financial ones.

In terms of overpaying for young players, it’s on one end fairly simple, and on the other immensely complicated. Highly productive players are a non-issue, seeing as they’re pretty much worth their new deals anyway. Players the team doesn’t want to keep around are non-issues, seeing as they can be traded and likely for something good if the potential there is fairly large. Where complication arises however is with the not-so-highly productive players who can swing both ways in terms of their career curve. Not only is it complicated for the reasons stated above, but also for the debate it generates. Because the truth is there’s no clear answer to the question of how good a certain player will be, or not be. Therefore, arguments can be twisted in whichever way the discussion goes. It’s such a fluid concept, and the players’ agents know this and uses it to full advantage.

At some point, it’d be wise for NBA teams to take back control and use the three to four years of data you have on the player to make a decision that doesn’t come down to “what if” scenarios. It’s riddled with fear, and fear rarely make for good business decisions.

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