Why it's dangerous to overpay Nick Young this summer

The comments in the last thread (specifically, ones raised by DCrez) got me thinking about the future of Nick Young with this team.  As everyone knows, Young is a restricted free agent this summer, at least according to the current collective bargaining rules that are likely to change.  Just in the nick of time (I promise that wasn't intentional), he's come forward with his best season as a pro.  

But this being the NBA, we always have to keep one eye on the future even as we enjoy the growth of a youngster in the present.  So with that in mind, I wanted to lay out why I think it's dangerous to overpay Nick Young going forward. 

First, let's start with DCrez's comment that got me thinking about this:

I dont get the thinking that it's ok to pay Nick $6mill, but that $8mill is somehow insanity...I dont see that kind of deal as hamstringing the team going forward. I'm not saying they definitely should pay him that much, I'm saying if they did, it's certainly not a franchise crippling move    

The three-part answer below the jump.

1.  Nick Young is a slightly above-average basketball player, not a building block

The biggest line of disagreement among people here stems from this fundamental question.  How good is Nick Young, really?  Is he someone you can hold up as a "core piece" to a future contender?  If you believe he is, then anything that follows here is somewhat irrelevant, and we'll just have to agree to disagree.  

However, I just don't buy it.  I say this not to demean Young's contributions, but ultimately, he's raised himself to being slightly above-average.  Strip away the per-game numbers for a second, because Young can accumulate those more easily since his team has few good shot creators.  Right now, Young's PER is 15.3, about league average.  His true shooting percentage is 54.8 percent -- good, but not spectacular.  He still isn't much of a passer, and he doesn't rebound, though I see where people come from when they say those aren't huge problems given the way Flip Saunders runs his offense.  Defensively, he's become a very good on-ball defender, to his credit, but his help defense is still a bit lacking (though his teammates have bigger issues).

For a point of reference, here's a list of guys 6'3'' to 6'8'' who are in the range of Young's production (PER between 14-17, TS% above 54, usage above 20) this season (click to enlarge).

Picture_42_medium

That's a list of decent players, but there aren't any future stars on there, unless you really believe in Wilson Chandler or Shannon Brown

All this is what he is in a sample of less than a full season.  Now, I'm not suggesting that all of Young's growth is unsustainable.  What I am suggesting is that we're ultimately talking about him playing 50 games out of 281 like this, or, more accurately, 50 of 124 with Flip Saunders as his coach.  There's reason to wonder whether some of this is an Andray Blatche-like mirage.  

Take his shooting, for example.  Back in December, Young's true shooting percentage was in the 58-percent range, which would obviously make him extremely valuable.  Since then, though, it's fallen pretty far once defenders started focusing more on him.  It's still at a decent level, but there's a big difference between great and decent, especially when you shoot as much as Young.  His percentage on long two-pointers (16-23 feet) is 48 percent, well above his previous marks (40, 40, 41).  A lot of that is within reason, but jumps like that can come back to earth very easily from year to year, even if all the conditions are better.  If you split the difference (44-45 percent), that's still a pretty big drop for someone who takes a lot of shots from that area.

More fundamentally, the reason for Young's success is because Saunders has simplified things for him, amplifying what he does best (shoot, one-on-one defense) while lessening and accounting for what he doesn't (pass, rebound, create off the dribble).  In other words, Saunders is turning him into a more limited player.  For someone to pay a core guy kind of salary to a limited player means they must be great at what they do well.  Young is merely good.  

(And, while I hate this argument, it's still worth noting that Young is doing this all on a bad team.  I say this not to demean Young's contributions, because production is production, but more because there's less of an argument about the necessity to "keep a good thing going." This is not yet a good thing).

All this is why, on my mythical ideal team, Young is an ace sixth man that plays 25-30 minutes a night and provides the second-unit scoring you need in some games.

2.  Okay, fine, so he's average. What's the big deal about overpaying average players?

Because I firmly believe this is where teams run into trouble with how they manage their cap.

Let's think for a second about the NBA talent pool as one giant pyramid.  When you scan the vast group of professional basketball players, what you're really doing is putting them into certain categories.  Essentially, those categories are: superstars, all-stars, building blocks, decent/average players, replacement-level players and roster filler.  The analytics to determine these distinctions may differ, but these are still the distinctions teams have to make.  As you go down the list, the number of players in each category becomes greater.  There are only a few true superstars in this league, and so on.  

Now, I realize that not every single player ever is attainable at one given time.  I also realize that the current cap rules give hometown teams incentives to keep their players.  But there also reaches a certain point where, from a pure resources perspective, it doesn't provide much value to overpay.  You have to overpay superstars and even all-stars because there are so few of them available at any given time.  It's not like the Hawks can just dump Joe Johnson (an all-star) and go sign another one.  Not only are there fewer all-stars period, but those teams rarely let them go.  So, unless you want to replace your all-star with someone from a lower spot on the pyramid (which dramatically hurts your team), you have to overpay your all-star.

But that's not the case with guys in the decent/average range.  The talent pool is so much wider, especially at a position like shooting guard.  There's no need to give those guys too much money when you have many more means to find that person's replacement.  Maybe the dollar cost isn't significant, but the on-court performance bump is close to non-existent.  Sure, paying Joe Johnson $20 million when he's probably worth $12-13 million is a waste of more dollars than paying Nick Young $8 million when he's worth $6 million, but the difference is that $12-13 million replacement almost never exists on the open market.  That $6 million replacement, though, is always there, and in fact, many of those replacements cost even less.  

Sure, maybe it's not the kind of replacement that can replicate all of Young's game, and sure, it's not one who knows the system.  But coaches' shelf lives are so small in this league that the "system" argument usually doesn't matter a ton.  Either a new coach comes in soon with a new system, or the current coach is so good that he can teach the new guy his system quickly.  

Every $2 million counts.  Now, that's that much more you've saved out of your bottom line that can be used to really lock in the guys that matter, to overpay the Joe Johnson types, either in free agency or the ones you own already.  

But then who replaces Nick Young?

First of all, as mentioned above, I think this is a bit of a red herring.  But to go further into this, I think teams get into trouble when they think in these terms.  "How do we replace our average to slightly above-average role player??" they say, causing them to overpay for those guys.  What ends up happening is that you begin a downward spiral where each re-signing of average players can be more justified.  That's how the Hawks end up giving Marvin Williams too much money, then paying Mike Bibby $6 million.  That's how the Bucks pay Drew Gooden $6 million, trade for Corey Maggette at $10 million and give John Salmons $8 million.  It's a repetitive cycle that hurts your bottom line, your salary-cap flexibility and your ability to acquire guys that truly matter.  One could argue we've already started the cycle by giving Andray Blatche $7 million (though I will say that deal made sense at the time because Blatche's flashes were building-block quality, whereas Young's are not in my opinion).

But more practically, here's a list of shooting guards in the average/decent range (or maybe slightly below) that are available this summer:

 

And then you also have your potential trade targets, guys like O.J. Mayo, Courtney Lee, Mo Williams, Rip Hamilton (less years) and Rudy Fernandez, as well as current or future draft picks.  You can live with many of these guys while using money you may save to upgrade other positions on the roster, invest in scouting, facilities, player development -- all things that ensure that your money isn't just going to waste (i.e. curbing the "John Wall thinks the organization is cheap" worry).

I like Nick Young, and in an ideal world, I'd keep him no matter what, but the Wizards need to think about their future as well.  Does it really help them in the long term to give an average player an above-average salary?  Maybe it's a small step back, but it also provides the means for much bigger steps forward.  
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