In the latest off-brand roster move that wasn’t terrible, the Clippers locked up Lou Williams to a three-year, $24 million extension (team option in year three) ahead of this season’s trade deadline.
The extension was seen a blessing for someone like Williams, who has played for five teams since 2014.
“It’s like my kids didn’t know who to root for anymore,” he told the Los Angeles Times after the deal was completed in early February. “They were confused. They walk around with Rockets shorts and Lakers jerseys. They just didn’t know what was going on. So it’s just nice to have that one consistent to know you’re going to be somewhere for an extended period of time.”
Regardless of whatever perceived sense of stability his new contract gave him, the reality is Williams signed for pennies on the dollar. He’ll make as much as Vince Carter and Channing Frye, and less than what J.J. Redick and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope earn this season. All of those players are well past prime years and not nearly as effective as Williams.
Williams is putting up 22.9 points, 5.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game as of Monday. Consider those numbers, then realize players at similar or better production levels like DeMar Derozan, DeMarcus Cousins, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Harden all average $27 million annually — more than Williams’ entire contract.
Lou Williams has produced 25+ PTS off the bench 18 times this season. The only other player to do that 18 times in a season since 1991-92 was New York’s J.R. Smith in 2012-13.
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) March 26, 2018
Even the logic of his justification doesn’t necessarily hold up. Eight million dollars annually is a very moveable contract in today’s NBA. If a contending team truly wanted him down the road, it wouldn’t take much maneuvering to make room for Williams’ scoring services and continue his reputation as a journeyman.
To say player representatives have looked at the extension with frustration would be a complete understatement.
“I’m not going to pass judgment on [the contract] totally, but I’ll just tell you that the agents were pissed,” Brian Windhorst told Zach Lowe on “The Lowe Post” last month.
Agents have every right to be upset. This new precedent that borderline All-Stars can be bought at a price below the mid-level exception (which currently sits at $8.4 million) will hit the paychecks of this summer’s free agents especially hard, but it may have already started taking effect.
Take some of Cleveland’s roster moves, for example. Aside from the need for a complete overhaul, the Cavs probably don’t take on contracts of players like George Hill and Jordan Clarkson if they couldn’t extend Larry Nance Jr. and sign Rodney Hood at a discount. Neither Hood nor Nance are putting up Williams’ numbers, even when adjusted, but their youth means a potential for growth in important skill sets beyond volume scoring. Had this been two years ago, Nance would be getting at least Williams’ salary, and Hood would be making $12 million. But the Cavs’ moves indicate that that’s no longer the case.
This will inevitably ripple into the offseason for players like Avery Bradley, who has a reputation as one of the league’s best defenders, and Tyreke Evans, another former trade-deadline commodity. They will be valued at salaries that would be considered insulting just months earlier.
If those players are getting shafted, one can only imagine what’ll happen to a useful wing like Will Barton, or a plus-minus machine like Marcus Smart. If Isaiah Thomas was worried about his worth before the trade that sent him to the Lakers, think how concerned he’ll be this summer.
There is an argument that this sort of contract was always coming — that the cacophony of max contracts for superstars, and inflated contracts for average players, would eventually come to a crashing result like this extension. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor pointed out that the contracts structured to keep high-caliber players are making it difficult to put good teams around those players.
But this extension really just gives owners the chance to overcorrect their expensive rosters. If an owner is willing to give a player like Ian Mahinmi or Bismack Biyombo $60-$70 million contracts because of a cap spike, what will stop them from paying a below-average player who would happily take a low, Williams-type contract? If that happens, wouldn’t the salary cap that’s supposedly in place to promote league parity turn into a device that will ironically cause bad teams with bad general managers that made bad decisions to only get worse?
Obviously that’s an extreme rhetorical, but the point still stands that these kind of market changes don’t necessarily make people smarter with money. As O’Connor notes, “If teams are smart and only the truly special players are given max money, then there’s an opportunity to recalibrate what players are worth.”
That’s a big “if.” Bad decision makers won’t get better with more money. So if the management of an employer’s capital doesn’t change, why should the earnings of the employee do the same?
This isn’t just about giving sympathy toward players that will earn more money than most Americans will see in their lifetimes. Williams’ contract does nothing but give a surplus of labor for his employers, a dynamic that fundamentally cannot exist for any extended period of time. There is a real problem in play, but the league should try to combat the excess of large contracts.
The NBA is in charge of or enforcing the salary cap that’s putting both owners and players in this bind, and if the solution is left up to the owners and GMs, it will clearly border on exploitation.