By now you've surely heard the news: the Bucks are preparing to ink unrestricted free agent Ersan Ilyasova to a five-year, $45 million deal. Ilyasova's situation was far and away the most pressing issue facing the Milwaukee Bucks this offseason, and the story was hardly lacking in twists and turns. First the reports of a five-year offer, then Ersan spurning that offer, than a planned meeting between Ersan and Bucks owner Herb Kohl, and finally the early-morning news yesterday of a deal being nearly complete. Few expected the contract status to resolve so suddenly, and yet the final result seemed only too inevitable when it fell into place.
Predictably, reaction was mixed. As first reported, the terms simply seemed too rich to rationalize. Why raise the offer for an unproven-if-intriguing power forward when the market for his services seemed to be collapsing? Many fears were soothed when word broke that the deal included a team option as the final year, thankfully swinging the needle a bit toward the team-friendly side. Still, was it necessary, or just another step on the mediocrity treadmill we've all grown so tired of hearing about?
We've already broken down what Ilyasova's likely return says about the Bucks' plans and priorities, but we can't really pass judgement yet--we have to wait until we see at least, like, six games or something. Until then, we offer some cheerful food for thought. Here are a few reasons why signing Ersan Ilyasova to a long-term deal is a good decision.
Ersan is coming off a really, really good season.
This is probably the most important element of the entire Ilyasaga (see what I did there?), and yet also the most easily and frequently discounted. Yes, Ersan's 2011-2012 production blew away career highs across the board. Yes, that it coincided with a contract year raises obvious questions. But he ranked 31st in the NBA in PER last season and was arguably its best stretch-4. You don't have to condone it, but surely you can understand why the manager of an attention-starved franchise wouldn't want to let that guy go.
His improvement was more than chance fluctuation--it was deliberate and directed.
Here's the point I've been harping on for months: Last season, Ersan played better than he ever has. In this case played isn't a synonym for produced. Nobody should expect him to repeat as the NBA's second-best three-point shooter, but even a moderate regression there should leave plenty of value. So much of Ersan's ability is wrapped up in effort--what he lacks in physical ability or pure talent he makes up for in something frequently described as sheer will. Last year, I believe he truly discovered how to harness that effort. He took a much greater percentage of his shots at the rim compared to previous seasons and nearly doubled his per-minute shot blocking. But nowhere was this "focused effort" more evident than in his rebounding. Already a firmly above-average defensive rebounder, Ersan's work on the offensive boards was striking. He figured out how to position himself, time his jumps, and predict the movement of the ball and other players to best attack the glass. It seems wrong to expect that effort and execution to fall off just because he has a steady paycheck now; I'd like to think the soul of a basketball player never really changes.
He's in or entering his prime, so it's highly unlikely he'll completely fall apart.
Another presumptive but reasonable assumption: Ersan's best seasons are either upon us or yet to come. Assuming there's any merit to the conventional wisdom that bigs peak a bit later in their careers, Ersan's late 20s should be his most productive years. Locking him up for the next four years (with the option for a fifth which would, if invoked, represent a major value) represents perhaps the lowest possible risk of "busting" short of a late first-round rookie scale contract. In other words, while this this deal might back sore memories of overpaid role players, the timing at least makes it a better bet.
The deal isn't big enough to kill future flexibility or preclude a major acquisition.
In our big breakdown of the Ersan Ilyasova Conundrum, I wrote about how the changing landscape of the NBA could make free agency a more viable option for the Milwaukee Bucks to acquire talent. I stand by that hope (whatever that means), but I have to admit it's more of a dream than an immediate expectation. The draft and trade market remain Milwaukee's best means of landing the star player(s) needed to compete in the NBA these days. This contract in isolation shouldn't make those routes any less accessible. Signing players like Ilyasova to long-term deals may reek of organizational stagnation, but I can't imagine his presence on the roster would significantly complicate a teardown/rebuild project, should that possibility ever become truly viable. In fact, deals of this size are some of the most common components of larger moves that seriously change franchise outlook. After all, Joe Johnson just got traded.