What is value in the NBA? Continuing from our foray into the Milwaukee Bucks and their recent history of free agent signings (or at least some of them), we’re going to go further and look at the extensions the team has worked out in recent years.
Eric Bledsoe: 4-year/$70M extension in 2019 (partial guarantee on Year 4)
It was no surprise that the Bucks were interested in keeping Bledsoe long-term, but at the time it was unclear how they could accomplish that alongside maintaining the ability to also keep Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon, and shoot maybe even George Hill or Nikola Mirotic. We know now that The President and ThreeKola were the odd men out, but not back in March when the deal surprised most of us as the team prepped for a playoff run.
At that moment, the extension felt like a massive steal, and in many ways it still does. Bledsoe was one of the league’s premier defenders last year, and was honored by being named to the All-Defense First Team. Not only that, he had managed in Milwaukee to avoid the nagging injuries that had blemished his time in Los Angeles and Phoenix, so despite the concerns about his health, he has yet to miss significant time. So if we go out on a limb and assume that the Milwaukee version of Eric Bledsoe is the “new normal,” and we project his performance to plateau at current levels (at best) or start declining slightly (more likely), what does the value of his contract look like? I took a crack at projecting his minutes played and total Win Shares over the course of his contract, with both declining at a steady clip as the league average for WS Value increased alongside the projected increases to the NBA salary cap. Here are the results:
Obviously, the assumptions we’re using here are generous, and that’s putting it kindly. Bledsoe is an athletic point guard with barely-average shooting results from past years, who will turn 30 during the season and oh yeah, there’s some concern about there being two of him: one during the regular season and one during the postseason.
That being said, even if his production takes a more significant downturn, Bledsoe appears to project as a positive value for the Bucks for the foreseeable future, even if his playing time totals are limited for various reasons. Because Milwaukee locked Bledsoe in at a relatively-low rate (he’s the 78th highest-paid player in the league next season, making the same amount as Dennis Schröder and less than Reggie Jackson), the amount his contract will pay is relatively consistent with the annual projected increases to the salary cap, meaning the Bucks can afford for his performance to naturally decline while still recouping significant on-court value from him. And if that doesn’t come to pass, the Bucks still have a get-out-of-jail-for-a-significant-discount card to play with the final season of Bledsoe’s contract being only a quarter-guaranteed.
All in all, this exercise points to the Bledsoe extension as an out-and-out win for Milwaukee. Of course, this exercise doesn’t consider the difficulties he’s had in the playoffs, the possibility of missing significant time (which would obviously tank his value), the lack of alternatives at point guard forcing the team to live with whichever Eric they get on any given night, and the fact that his career shooting numbers are not that much more impressive than Giannis’...so whether or not extending Bledsoe is truly valuable in the macro-sense remains to be seen. But from what we can tell, the stage is at least set for success, which is all a team really can do.
In the past...
Tony Snell: 4-year/$46M extension in 2017
When Snell got his extension in the opening hours of the 2017 offseason, every Bucks fan thought it was premature and far too rich. Well, almost every Bucks fan.
this is the side of the open gym the media DOESN’T want you to see.— (@SnellSZN) August 22, 2019
tony snell dishing out BUCKETS!! where was this video on the TL?? pic.twitter.com/6IKZNcMbNP
GOAT debate aside, Tony Snell has always been a nice player; a capable athlete who hits threes and plays defense with the energy and effort you’d expect from a starting-caliber NBA wing. In the last year of his stint with the Bucks, he started showing off a little bit more dribble-drive game than most would have anticipated, which was a fun development for a player who’s thought to have hit his ceiling...but after his rookie scale contract ran out, whoever decided to pay him was going to take the hit.
It happens all the time, to every team, even if it seems like it disproportionately happens to the Bucks. Snell was coming off of a hugely productive 2016-17 season (relative to expectations), and a payday was coming his way. The amount he ended up with was actually relatively standard for the 3&D wing market, but what sort of value did he end up looking like on that contract? We looked at the last year of his time in Chicago, the 2016-17 year that got him paid, and then added a projection for his 2019-20 season in Detroit:
As you can see, Tony Snell is a cautionary tale for when a rookie scale contributor gets a big payday; they might deserve it and their market might demand it, but the team paying the money is not in a position to expect to recoup value. Snell’s salary went up by a factor of four, but his playing time and production was relatively unchanged. Suddenly, a player who complemented the roster now sticks out like a sore thumb; nothing on the floor has changed, but the cap sheet now shows you as a blemish rather than a bargain. Snell can still play, he’s just way overpaid for what he adds. But better to have that than...
Miles Plumlee: 4-year/$52M extension in 2016
Hoo boy. Plumlee was a part of the infamous Brandon Knight/Michael Carter-Williams trade, and probably would have remained that way were it not for a career season in 2015-16. As was the tradition at the time, then-GM John Hammond pounced to retain a player who was about to break out...except for how Plumlee was never truly going to break out of anything except for the occasional pick-and-roll coverage for an alley-oop. A plus-athlete with precious little skill elsewhere, Miles Plumlee was fun doing his one thing...and virtually inept at basically everything else, which was magnified by the evolution of the NBA center position that left him and others of his ilk in the rearview mirror.
I don’t even need to post the chart for you all to know just how bad of value Plumlee’s contract was, but here it is anyway, including a random guess at his 2019-20 season (which would somehow be an improvement with the Memphis Grizzlies):
He hasn’t broken 1,000 minutes played since before signing his extension, and his Win Share production was pedestrian during his best season...which was back in Phoenix. It was a miserable deal at the time, and...you know what, I’ll let you see what Frank Madden said at the time:
Contractually, let’s start with the obvious: it’s not clear that any other team was going to offer the same kind of deal length or annual salary that Plumlee ended up getting, and it’s a bit scary giving a four-year deal to an almost-28-year-old whose game is almost entirely predicated on athleticism. While the dollars aren’t crazy in 2016 free agency terms, this deal could look rather bad if Plumlee suffers a Gadzurician productivity dip.
When the name of Dan Gadzuric is invoked, you know it’s bad. And despite all that, John Hammond still managed to clean up his mess, trading Plumlee a year later for Spencer Hawes and Roy Hibbert...who ended up getting traded to Denver for a heavily-protected second round pick, which eventually did convey and was used in the Nikola Mirotic trade! What a tangled web we weave!
John Henson: 4-year/$44M extension in 2015
There was a short window of time where John Henson was the longest-tenured Milwaukee Buck. He was here when Giannis was drafted. He outlasted Larry Sanders, Brandon Jennings, and a whole host of other names that have come and gone. Henson, albeit frustrating from the standpoints of consistency, development, effort, and general basketball performance, was a beloved member of the Milwaukee community, and he had even seemed to (somehow) fit into Mike Budenholzer’s system relatively well...until a wrist injury sidelined him for the duration of the season and his contract necessitated offloading to the Cleveland Cavaliers (along with Matthew Dellavedova) in exchange for George Hill.
So Henson was a “mainstay” for the Bucks, but after signing his extension, was he worth the money they were paying him? Considering the amount he made, most fans would immediately assume not, but in context the story doesn’t sound as bad as you may think! As has been the case, let’s take a look at the last year of his rookie scale deal, the last three seasons, and a guess at how next season might go for him in Cleveland:
John Henson might be a player you point to when arguing about the value of Win Shares, and how closely they tie into playing time. With Henson’s stats, we can see that the value he provides in both availability and productivity are closely correlated (which is not always the case, we’ve learned!) to one another, which could spur the argument that he’d be a better value if he just played more. In his case, we’ve seen him be at least as useful as the league average would indicate, which means his contract extension aged well.
Why did Henson’s age relatively well, while Snell’s and Plumlee’s maybe didn’t? One thing in Henson’s corner is positional bias: backup centers generally come up with more counting stats than backup wings, and Tony Snell was remarkably light on statistical contributions as it was. Another was timing: Henson’s deal was signed the summer before the cap spike, locking him in at a lower number (that seemed larger at the time) while Plumlee signed that summer and Snell the summer after. A third possible reason is contract structure; Plumlee had a flat contract while Snell’s was on an incline, but Henson took a deal that most players don’t and accepted declining salary year-over-year; when put up against the ever-increasing salary cap figures, Henson simply has more wiggle room to look good than the others do.
At the end of it, the easiest answer might be that Henson was just way better than Miles Plumlee (easy to argue) and Tony Snell (not so easy), and as a result appears to perform better in the area of value when they’re all making similar amounts of money. It really isn’t always more difficult than that, is it?
What lessons can we glean from these cases? Is it as simple as “Don’t pay role players coming off their rookie-scale contracts double-digit salaries!” or can we find more nuance than that? The Bucks, thanks to their status as Finals contenders, don’t have much coming down the pipeline in way of young players requiring paydays, but there’s still D.J. Wilson (summer of 2021) and Donte DiVincenzo (summer of 2022) to consider. If either of them play their way into getting paid, are the Bucks going to repeat history and retain them? Should they, if it means turning a positive-value contributor into a neutral one, or a negative one? Or would they potentially get burned by watching a promising young player walk because the Bucks were afraid to overpay someone who genuinely helps the team?
These are big decisions, and the evaluation of value for each possible outcome is the sort of thing that every franchise struggles with. When we conclude this installment of our value series, we’ll look at the three biggest decisions that Jon Horst has for the Bucks from a value perspective, and see what we can find out. Until next time!