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Solving the Ersan Ilyasova Conundrum

Mar. 26, 2012; New York, NY, USA; Milwaukee Bucks power forward Ersan Ilyasova (7) shoots a free throw during the first half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.  Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE
Mar. 26, 2012; New York, NY, USA; Milwaukee Bucks power forward Ersan Ilyasova (7) shoots a free throw during the first half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

I feel like we somehow know both more and less about Ersan Ilyasova than we did when he was drafted in the 2nd round in 2005. The gawky 18-year old Turk hadn't played very much high-level basketball yet, but his scouting report raved about his shooting, rebounding, and defensive skills. (They also said that he could be a great slasher and a low-post threat, so take it with several grains of salt.)

Fast-forward to the 2012 free agency season, and Ersan is just as nebulous. His NBA career stats are nothing special, but this last season was cause for some raised eyebrows. What 6'10" power forward goes from shooting threes at .298 one year and .455 the next? Who's grabbing nearly 9 boards per game (3 on offense) in less than 30 minutes work? How many other players have mastered the lost arts of the heady back-door cut, the mid-range jumper, the tip-in, or the taken charge?

Ersan is tremendously skilled and unselfish; he can do all the little things that help a team succeed. And now that he's a free agent, he's on the brink of some serious attention...from somebody.

If you were John Hammond, what do you do about Ersan Ilyasova?

Before we get too far into this, let's look at the current state of affairs.

Ersan as a player has his strengths on the basketball court. On offense, he's useful as a pick-and-pop 4, capable of hitting a mid-range or long-range shot if his man chases the ball handler too far. He's also a great option spotting up from the arc; his height and high release make him an attractive target for a driving teammate looking to dish. And if his man is playing him tight? So be it, that's extra space in the lane for a teammate.

While he can put it on the floor, any defender who leaves his feet to defend against Ersan's transparent-as-glass pump fake should turn in his NBA credentials on the spot. No, if Ilyasova has the ball in his hands, he's either going to shoot it or pass it. Dribbling is not a credible threat. That said, Ersan is at his most dangerous when the ball is in the air, falling towards the hoop during a teammate's shot attempt. His nose for offensive rebounds is uncanny, as is his touch around the rim. He's not the most explosive athlete, but few have that quick bounce that elevates his hand an inch above the defender's to tap it back towards the goal.

On defense, Ersan's impact is less obvious but no less significant. An excellent defensive rebounder (14th among 86 qualifying PFs in defensive rebound rate in 2011-12), he rarely cedes position on box outs and is able to tip the ball to a teammate if he can't come up with it himself. He's a smart man-to-man defender who succeeds at making his opponent uncomfortable despite not having great shot-blocking ability. He struggles to switch off and back, a trait which has improved over time. Lastly, he's a great charge-taker, expertly setting his body for impact, selling the aftermath, and jogging back down after the foul/turnover combo.

Ersan is the kind of guy you love to play with and hate to play against. He's an excellent judge of both space and movement, often arriving where he's supposed to be before his opponent knows where that spot is. Seriously, if you combined Ersan's offense and Ekpe Udoh's defense, you'd have the most effective underwhelming player ever conceived.

He's a willing passer despite his low assist numbers. He's a banger in the post despite his size. His approach to the game is so success-driven that his hustle is highly-regarded. Everything started to come together during the second half of the season, highlighted by his 29-25 night against New Jersey and his dagger tip-in against the Knicks. He works and works and works, and his teammates notice. Brandon Jennings summed it up best after the aforementioned Knicks game, "Ersan saved the day," because Ilyasova does everything in his power to put his team in position to win.

Ersan's contract expired with a cap figure around $2.5 million. He's due for a raise, and he certainly hasn't been shy about talking about it. Sure, he'll stay in Milwaukee...if they pay him. Sure, he'll go to New Jersey...if they pay him. Sure, he'll go back to Europe...if they pay him. So if you were John Hammond, what would you do?

First, from the Brew Hoop Brain Trust...

Frank: "If I were John Hammond, I'd probably be willing to do different numbers at different contract durations: 1 year/$11 mil, 2 years/$19 million, 3 years/$24 million, 4 years/$28 million. I'm very wary of doing really long-term deals with complementary guys, especially given that the numbers we're talking about are obviously starter dollars and Ersan only established himself as a starter over the last few months of the season. Are we sure that he's the player we saw in 11/12, or could he regress back to the solid-but-not-great Ersan of 2009-2011?

"Moreover, locking up Ersan long-term raises obvious questions about how all your other combo bigs fit into the long-term picture. If the Bucks think Henson is the PF of the future, then you'd much prefer a shorter deal for Ersan or perhaps no deal at all. I don't think the Bucks can count on Henson to match Ersan's productivity in the short term nor am I completely sold on Ersan as the long-term solution at PF, so re-upping Ilyasova for one or two years might be the optimal solution, even if it requires paying a premium."

Dan: "If I was John Hammond, I'd keep in mind the changing landscape of the NBA--not just on the court, but off it as well. The power forward position seems to be growing more and more important as a lynchpin of NBA strategy, especially with the rising dominance of "smallball" styles of play. No longer is it sufficient to have a PF who "simply" bangs around inside and pulls down rebounds: PFs need to distribute the ball from the middle of the floor, set good screens on and off the ball, and be adept at quickly turning opponent possessions into transition opportunities. In the meantime, they need to effectively defend their opposing big and be comfortable switching onto quicker players when strategy dictates. While Ersan does a few prototypical PF things well (rebounding, creating havoc under the basket) and some atypical things well (shooting from range, hustle plays), he's not in that elite class deserving of a star-level contract. Perhaps he could be someday, but his progression so far has been more punctuated equilibrium than steady rise.

In broader terms, if I'm John Hammond, I'm intrigued by how many recent management decisions have seemed increasingly dictated by financial considerations. Teams are quickly realizing the need to shore up their payroll to avoid harsh luxury tax penalties and ensure the greatest contractual flexibility in the coming years. For a long time, concepts like free-agency and cap space were afterthoughts for organizations like the Milwaukee Bucks; it's possible we may be leaving those days behind. As old bloated contracts expire and the ability of major markets to balloon their payroll wanes, keeping room open for large contract offers to top-level players could become a legitimate possibility for even the humblest of franchises. And while Ersan Ilyasova's 2011-2012 production on a reasonable deal is certainly a valuable investment for the Bucks, I, John Hammond, look forward to a time in the not-too-distant future when Milwaukee sets its eyes on an even bigger prize."

Steve: "If I were John Hammond, I would be sure to remind myself that guys like Ersan Ilyasova don't truly matter to a team like the Bucks. That's nothing against Ersan, who's a nice pro player, but losing him or keeping him will not materially change the trajectory of the franchise. The Bucks would be better served maintaining flexibility and developing their younger group of power forwards who could provide more surplus value over the next few seasons than they would by engaging in any type of bidding war for Ilyasova.

"There may not be better ways to spend that money right away, and there may not be better players to instantly replace the Turk, but both opportunities will almost certainly arise during the life of Ilyasova's next deal. The Bucks need to be in the best position to take advantage of those types of opportunities down the line...that's their best shot at becoming a contender, and that's really the goal, right?"

Mitchell: "If I were John Hammond, I would wait and see. Ersan isn't a player who sets the market; he'll be signed to a deal determined by players higher on the power forward pecking order. He deserves to get more than, say, Brandon Bass, but he's certainly nowhere near Kevin Garnett money. I want to see what other moves are being made by our Eastern Conference rivals before making my move.

"Before I make that move, though, I take a look at the roster, and I don't like what I see. There are 4.5 legit power forwards on my team, and adding someone who's 80% power forward only throws the balance off further. Of course, Ilyasova offers something that the three-headed monster I hereby dub Jokperry Sandohson doesn't: general offensive ability. He also fits in well with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis' combined 45 shot attempts. And every once in a while we get to see him and Mike Dunleavy pull off a play so flawlessly simple it makes you want to line up every NBA coach ever and slap each one in the face. So it's not like he doesn't have value.

If I decide his value is worth more than someone else, I make a move with one of the other forwards. If it works out, then I work with Ersan; I come in low at 4 years/$22 million, but I'm willing to go as high as $30 million. And if I want to be bold, I dangle 3 years/$24 million to see if Camp Ilyasova bites. If we're close, I try to sell the fact that Milwaukee drafted him, his wife is from here, and he can have all of the Usinger's he can choke down. If he walks, he walks."

Wise words, if I do say so myself. But I can't just say so myself, because that would make me a selfish jerk. So please, do me this kindness and complete this thought: "If I were John Hammond..."