It took nearly a month of free agency to do it, but the last big free agency name was eventually taken off the board at the end of July. The Houston Rockets finally agreed to re-sign free agent centre Clint Capela to a deal reported to cost them only five years and $90 million, of which only five years and $80 million is guaranteed.
My use of the world "only" there was very deliberate. That is not a lot of money for a player of some calibre, and who is a roughly ideal fit for what the Rockets are doing with their team. It is considerably less than the maximum salary of five years and $147,710,050 (or four years and $109,509,175 with another team) that he could have signed for, and it is a lot less than Houston probably expected they could get him for when headed into free agency. In a tough free agency period in which they lost Trevor Ariza to the Phoenix Suns and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute to the L.A. Clippers, and given a maximum contract to Chris Paul that will be of questionable value in the back end, the Rockets needed to win on this one, and they have done.
In large part, this was due to their patience. Taking this full month allowed the relative impatience of the competition to take effect, and as the other cap space teams spent their money up, Capela quickly ran out of bidders. The Rockets have been significantly aided in this quest, though, not only by Capela's restricted free agency, but also by a flat overall market for 'big men'.
Positional distinctions are increasingly hard to do these days. Still, with that disclaimer in mind, here is a list of all the new contracts given out to veteran 'big men' in the NBA this summer, where 'big men' is not designed to include stretch fours. [Stretch fives are included, because this post is a look at value at the centre spot, but yes, the distinctions are pretty small if even present at all.]
Atlanta: Alex Len - two years, $8.5 million (signed from Phoenix)
Boston: Aron Baynes - two years, $10,646,880 (re-signed, player option year two)
Brooklyn: Ed Davis - one year, $4,449,000 (signed from Portland)
Cleveland: Channing Frye - one year, minimum salary (signed from L.A. Lakers)
Dallas: DeAndre Jordan - one year, $22,897,200 (signed from L.A. Clippers)
Dallas: Dirk Nowitzki - one year, $5 million (re-signed)
Dallas: Salah Mejri - one year, minimum salary (re-signed)
Denver: Nikola Jokic - five years, $142,710,045 (maximum salary; re-signed)
Detroit: Zaza Pachulia - one year, minimum salary (signed from Golden State)
Golden State: DeMarcus Cousins - one year, $5,337,000 (signed from New Orleans)
Golden State: Kevon Looney - one year, minimum salary (re-signed)
Houston: Clint Capela - five years, $90 million (re-signed; only $87.5 million against the cap at the outset)
Indiana: Kyle O'Quinn - one year, $4,449,000 (signed from New York)
L.A. Clippers: Montrezl Harrell - two years, $12 million (re-signed)
L.A. Lakers: JaVale McGee - one year, minimum salary (signed from Golden State)
Milwaukee: Brook Lopez - one year, $3,382,000 (signed from L.A. Lakers)
New Orleans: Jerome Randle - two years, $17,714,050 (signed from L.A. Lakers; player option year two)
New Orleans: Jahlil Okafor - two years, minimum salary (signed from Brooklyn; team option year two)
New York: Luke Kornet - one years, $1,619,250 (re-signed)
Oklahoma City: Nerlens Noel - two years, minimum salary (signed from Dallas; player option year two)
Orlando: Amile Jefferson - one year, two-way contract (signed from Minnesota)
Philadelphia: Amir Johnson - one year, minimum salary (re-signed)
Portland: Jusuf Nurkic - four years, $48 million (re-signed)
Toronto: Greg Monroe - one year, minimum salary (signed from Boston)
Washington: Dwight Howard - two years, $10,940,850 (signed from Brooklyn; player option year two)
Legitimately good players were available for low prices. Some stand-out examples include Lopez (who took only a bi-annual exception for one year from Milwaukee, quite the pay cut from his $22,642,350 last season), O'Quinn (who did not deliberately opt out of a $4,256,250 one year player option just to sign a one year $4,449,000 but found he had little choice), Alex Len (who signed a mere two year, $8.5 million contract with the team closest to his own name despite how good he was at times last year) and Nurkic (a restricted free agent post player like Capela, who, like Capela, seemingly drew no significant-enough offers from other teams). And some got even less attention than that - after being waived by the Pacers, Al Jefferson went to China, while Lucas Nogueira has not signed at all. Which might explain why he has changed agency.
The market was dry overall, but based on the numbers above, it was particularly dry at the five spot. Some money was still spent elsewhere, in a few instances in sizeable amounts, but little of it went to centres. In a market in which Jabari Parker got $20 million per year, Zach LaVine signed for $78 million over four, Ariza got $15 million for one year, Aaron Gordon got $76 million from the Magic and Will Barton got $53 million from Denver, you could have gotten all of O'Quinn, Lopez and Ed Davis ($12.28 million) for the price of one year of Miles Plumlee ($12.5 million). Or, if you'd rather, Mason Plumlee ($12,917,808).
Miles signed his deal in the summer of 2016, a year of significant overspend, particularly at the frontcourt spots. Mason was signed in the summer of 2017, when there was still some residual cap excess to be had. The summer of 2018, though, had no such overage. It is telling that Mason Plumlee signed for more per year than the man he was traded for (and the man who latterly easily surpassed him on the court), Jusuf Nurkic, to the tune of $13.7 million per year compared to $12 million. Such is the difference between the 2017 and 2018 centre markets.
Indeed, as shown with O'Quinn, the bevvy of exercised player options in the run-up to free agency was a clue as to how dry the big man market was going to be this summer, even for those who can stretch the court. Jason Smith ($5.45 million), Enes Kanter ($18,622,514), Mike Muscala ($5 million), Dewayne Dedmon ($7.2 million) and Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500) all opted into player options for this upcoming season, as did power forwards Thad Young ($13,764,045) and Darrell Arthur ($7,464,912).
Dedmon in particular was something of a surprise; perhaps buoyed by the fact that he earned an extra $900,000 on his contract by virtue of his play last year meeting the threshold for previously unlikely incentives, he opted to stay with the Hawks and his below-MLE deal, despite being ostensibly everything the league is supposed to now want. A below-30 genuine five man who can stretch the floor, protect the rim and clear the glass could not get enough interest to opt out of a good value contract. As it turns out, it was not just the post centres who suffered - the market even for good quality stretch fives was not there, either.
For comparison's sake, here is the same style of list as above, with the same criteria, taken from the summer of 2016.
Atlanta: Dwight Howard - three years, $70.5 million
Atlanta: Kris Humphries - one year, $4 million
Boston: Al Horford - four year, $113,326,230 (maximum salary)
Boston: Tyler Zeller - two years, $16 million
Brooklyn: Justin Hamilton - two years, $6 million
Charlotte: Roy Hibbert - one year, $5 million
Cleveland: Chris Andersen - one year, minimum salary
Dallas: Dwight Powell - four years, $37,268,750
Dallas: Dirk Nowitzki - one year, $25 million
Detroit: Boban Marjanovic - three years, $21 million
Detroit: Andre Drummond - five years, $127,171,313 (maximum salary)
Golden State: Zaza Pachulia - one year, minimum salary
Golden State: JaVale McGee - one year, minimum salary
Golden State: David West - one year, minimum salary
Golden State: Anderson Varejao - one year, minimum salary
Houston: Nene - one year, $2,898,000
Indiana: Al Jefferson - three years, $30 million
L.A. Clippers: Marreese Speights - one year, minimum salary
L.A. Lakers: Timofey Mozgov - four years, $64 million
Miami: Hassan Whiteside - four years, $98,419,537
Miami: Udonis Haslem - one year, $4 million
Milwaukee: Miles Plumlee - four years, $50 million
Minnesota: Cole Aldrich - three years, $21.9 million
Minnesota: Jordan Hill - two years, $8.18 million
New York: Joakim Noah - four years, $72.59 million
Orlando: Bismack Biyombo - four years, $68 million
Portland: Festus Ezeli - two years, $15.133 million
Portland: Meyers Leonard - four years, $41 million
San Antonio: Pau Gasol - two years, $31,697,500
San Antonio: Dewayne Dedmon - two years, $6,375,600
Toronto: Jared Sullinger - one year, $5,628,000
Washington: Jason Smith - three years, $15.675 million
Washington: Ian Mahinmi - four years, $68 million
Washington: Andrew Nicholson - four years, $26.08 million
The summer of 2016 was a one-off disaster of financial planning, to be sure. And a lot of that overspending went on post players. But maybe that in turn is a factor as to why the big man market of 2018 has run so dry.
The summer of 2016 was the summer of the salary cap spike, up from $70 million in the 2015/16 season to $94.143 million that summer, an amount that saw almost every team have cap space. Knowing this, agents positioned a good many of their players to be free agents that summer to take advantage of the expanded market; knowing that they would lose the cap space in future years if they did not use it due to re-signing other players and the cap spike being a one-time deal, many teams spent as much as they could that summer. To compare the 2018 big man market purely to the anomaly that was the 2016 market, then, is to miss out of a lot of key context.
But what is of note is that, while the 2016 overspend was not exclusively limited to 'big men', they did nonetheless seem to be the main beneficiaries. Although the NBA was fairly far along in accepting the post-Warriors pace-and-space mentality into the new orthodox way of thinking, 2016 was still only two years removed from the second of two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals runs by Frank Vogel's Indiana Pacers, a team built around an unforgiving halfcourt defence, itself built around the play of Roy Hibbert. So when teams had an overage to spend, they were still often of the mentality that spending it on defensive-looking five men was the way to go, hence the big deals to Mozgov, Mahinmi and Noah.
Many of those deals have not aged well. Indeed, of the above list, eleven (Hill, Sullinger, Zeller, Howard, Nicholson, Aldrich, Andersen, Varejao, Ezeli, Jefferson, Hamilton) were waived before their contract's natural expiry date. Eleven others (Nowitzki, McGee, Pachulia, West, Gasol, Dedmon, Haslem, Humphries, Hibbert, Nene) have expired, and of the remaining twelve, four (Marjanovic, Mozgov, Plumlee and Biyombo) have been traded at least once already. That leaves only Horford, Powell, Drummond, Whiteside, Noah, Leonard, Smith and Mahinmi as veteran big men still on the deal they signed in 2016 with the team they signed it with. And in at least five of those cases, the team would like a do-over if they could.
Whiteside in particular is a good point of comparison here for Capela. The two are reasonably similar players; long, wiry-strong five men with good rebounding rates, some natural shot blocking ability, no shooting range and limited offensive skill. Capela is considerably more efficient than Whiteside overall; offensively, he does not insist on getting half-court paint touches (and has both Chris Paul and James Harden to set him up), while defensively, he is more positionally aware, does not overly chase blocks, and steps up to the perimeter more effectively. He is the better player of the two. And yet despite that, he is now on the lesser deal, earning $17.5 million a year versus $24.7 million a year. You could get a whole Dewayne Dedmon in that gap.
Team-specific circumstances play a part in some of the 2018 variance above, with a particularly obvious example being the Warriors and Cousins. There are also some obvious and distinct variables in play that explain much of the above 2016 contracts. But taken generally, what we are instead finding in this market is that the bigs no longer get the overage. The shooters do.
Take the Pacers, for example. They found $22 million over three years for the bench shooting of Doug McDermott, and gave Tyreke Evans $12.4 million for one year, yet needed only a third of that to get O'Quinn, a man not without his suitors. The one-year deals to both Evans and O'Quinn were deliberate - much like 2016, the summer of 2019 is shaping up to again be a free agency boon with more than half of the teams in the league having cap space, and players and agents are positioning themselves accordingly to capitalise. Only players getting at or above their perceived market value next summer chose to sign for more than one year, hence the outlier of the McDermott deal. Yet it is surely telling that Evans got nearly three times as much as O'Quinn. Evans is a very good player, but so is O'Quinn. One, however, has a more progressive, en vogue skill set. And can shoot.
For those with a professional need to understand where the next great market inefficiency lies, then, the fact that the money now goes to the shooters is definitely worth noting. Houston and Capela were one such situation - considering the teams with cap space were either taking on draft assets to use it, giving out extremely large contracts to reclamation wing players or just deciding Jeremy Lin would do, not all that much free agency money of note outside of the stars changed hands this year outside of the very top.
It is true that as of today, $2,636,951,824 was given out in 194 new contracts this summer (including rookie contracts and extensions, and excluding two-way contracts). But is is also true that $932,617,593 of that went to LeBron James, Paul George, Chris Paul, Nikola Jokic, Devin Booker, Kevin Love and Kevin Durant, all max recipients (except for Durant, hereby grandfathered in because his new deal was close enough and he is a clear tier 1A player). Of the next tiers down, the only players to get salaries between the full amount of the non-taxpayer MLE ($8.641 million) and the max next season are Evans, Ariza, Barton, Gordon, LaVine, Parker, Avery Bradley, Jerami Grant, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gay, Fred VanVleet, Rajon Rondo, Marcus Smart and J.J. Redick ... plus Jordan, Nurkic and Capela.
Of that $2,636,951,824 figure, $402,748,523 went to centres, per the above numbers, and of that amount, more than half went to Jokic and Capela only. The rest of the league's veteran centres got only $172,538,578 combined. Trevor Ariza got near enough the same as Clint Capela next season. Brook Lopez got less than Glenn Robinson III. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. In contrast, back in 2016, per the above numbers, veteran post players received a combined $1,060,725,516. The Plumlees it seems have good timing.
Capela could in theory have taken his qualifying offer and re-entered the free agency market in 2019, the one that stands to be a 2016-esque boon for players. It is however easier to take that gamble when you have already made big money once before like Evans, or when your one-year gap-bridging deal is of some significant size like Jordan. Precedent for this is not strong; both Nerlens Noel and Alex Len took their qualifying offers last year, for various reasons, yet both now earn a relative pittance (especially Noel, who went from wanting the maximum to getting the minimum in twelve short months). Having never yet been paid adequately for his services on his rookie contract, Capela will understandably have wanted to start drawing in the big bucks when he could. Houston wanted him to do that, too. But on their terms.
In the summer of 2016, although the Golden State Warriors revolution was some years old, the idea of the post defensive anchor was still alive. Indeed, those selfsame Warriors had been using a lot of Andrew Bogut until that point. The egregious overspend of that summer, though, had its repercussions. Teams had less money to spend on players in general, but they particularly had less to spend on centres; more pertinently, they were once bitten, twice shy.
Dovetailing with that is also an excess of quality big men, and a permanent premium on shooters. At a time teams want fewer post players than ever, there are more and more good ones available. It was only a few years ago that real stiffs could be found on NBA rosters, and marginal talents were overexposed and overplayed purely because they fit the right remit and grabbed enough rebounds to hold their own. Yet now, any team wanting a big man can pick from the litter; see also, the number of decent big man options theoretically available on the trade market who won't now corral any value (Robin Lopez, Tyson Chandler, Kenneth Faried etc), as well as the relative plethora of first-contract bigs of some calibre (even down to players such as Justin Patton and Deyonta Davis, who would have been Jackie Butler-style revered not so long ago, when any combination of 6'11 and offensive talent was rare).
The money for good quality centres, then, is down. But the money to the second and third tier players at all positions has gone down too. And in putting the two together, reconciling the league-wide eye on 2019 with the cap stagflation and incumbent dead post player money, Houston took advantage with their third tier centre. Some teams needed Clint Capela, but only some, and almost no one could afford him. And thus the one team that needed him the most got him back at a discount. Fortune favours the patient.