When I started watching the Bullets, my favorite players were Greg Ballard and Kevin Grevey. With Ballard, I think it was mostly the name, and my belief that he had a penchant for what a broadcaster called “going coast to coast.” Dribbling upcourt and scoring without making a single pass seemed like the pinnacle of awesome to my eight-year old eyes.
My affections passed to Darren Daye and Dudley Bradley and Jeff Malone. Every year, I thought Malone would be an All-Star, and twice he actually was. As the Bullets fortunes waned, my favorites...well...were my favorites. There was Charles Jones, The Secret Weapon, who once said with a straight face he could score “ten, twenty points a night, if that’s what the team needed” when he was averaging less than four points per game, and the team was in desperate need of scoring from anyone. But I still loved watching CJ do battle with opposing centers, all of whom were bigger, stronger, faster, and more skilled.
I believed LaBradford Smith was The Future. And then Calbert Cheaney. When Juwan Howard signed with Miami, I talked myself into the team being better because they’d acquired Rod Strickland, Tracy Murray and Lorenzo Williams. And when he came back, I kinda-sorta thought the team might be pretty good.
I liked the white-haired Tom McMillen, a jump-shooting big man who’d be at home in today’s NBA -- if he could extend his range to the three point line. And the no-neck Ledell Eackles. And Ennis Whatley, Googs, Harvey, Don MacLean, Steve Colter’s hair.
I could do this all day.
It’s comical now to look back at some of these players through the lens of advanced analytics and see how pedestrian their performance was. Knowing that Malone, for example, topped out at a little better than average doesn’t diminish his status as one of my favorite players. It just helps me understand the franchise’s history of futility.
But, when analyzing why a team wins and loses, it’s important to not play favorites. It’s essential to scrutinize what a player actually accomplishes when he’s on the floor, and how his contributions help or hurt his team win. And, it’s critical to separate effort from outcomes. As John Wooden said, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.”
I understand the affinity for players like Kelly Oubre. On the surface, Oubre has a lot to offer. He’s young, athletic, good-looking, and plays crazy hard. His potential feels limitless, which makes him an ideal fan favorite. It’s easy to imagine him among the game’s best players. It’s easy to imagine he’s close.
But, separate the flash from substance, the effort from the outcomes, and what’s there is something less than the Wizards need if they’re going to move up in the NBA hierarchy. This is not to say that Oubre can’t grow into the kind of player who can help, but rather to acknowledge the reality that he’s not there yet. He’s improved each year of his career so far, a trend that will hopefully continue.
What makes the issues of Oubre’s actual production vs. how much of his potential he can reach worth discussing in 2018 is that the clock is ticking on his rookie contract. To this point, Oubre’s production has been worth more than his salary because rookie scale salaries are so low.
Entering his fourth season, the Wizards must decide whether to offer Oubre a contract extension this summer or permit him to become a restricted free agent in 2019. If they decide to offer an extension, they have to figure out what he’s worth, and what he might be worth in the future. If they undervalue Oubre’s future, they risk watching him realize his potential somewhere else. Overvalue him, and they could be saddled with yet another cap-crushing contract.
Oubre has a decision too. Does he accept an extension this summer coming off his most productive, but also in a season in which he shot under 30 percent from three-point range after February? Or, does he bet on his own talent and potential, play out the option year, and then test the free agency market? It’s a weighty choice for a 22-year-old.
What might the market for Oubre look like? Since the NBA’s new television deal took effect, these are the wings whose performance most closely matched with Oubre’s in 2017-18:
- Austin Rivers
- Allen Crabbe
- Bojan Bogdanovic
- Doug McDermott
- Kent Bazemore
- Ben McLemore
- Nik Stauskas
- Norman Powell
- Jonathon Simmons
Others who were somewhat similar include Dion Waiters, Jordan Clarkson, and Jeff Green. The bigger deals signed by Crabbe and Bazemore shouldn’t be considered -- they both signed at a time when teams had a combined $300-plus million in cap space. Rivers should probably be discounted as well, unless the Wizards plan to replace Ernie Grunfeld with Kelly Oubre Sr.
New contracts from that group include:
- McLemore -- two years and $10.7 million total
- Stauskas -- four years and $12.4 million
- Clarkson -- four years and $50 million
- Bogdanovic -- two years and $21 million
- Powell -- four years and $42 million
- Simmons -- three years and $20 million
This sets some broad boundaries for a possible Oubre extension -- two to four years with an average annual salary ranging from $3.1 million to $12.5 million. Both salary extremes are out of the question. At $3.1 million (or anything close), Oubre would reject the offer and enter restricted free agent. The high end would require the Wizards to make a significant (and probably unwise) wager on Oubre’s potential.
The average contract from this group was three years at $8.2 million per year. My salary formula, which estimates the salary value of a player’s on-court production, says Oubre was worth about $7.5 million last season.
Using that $8.2 million as a starting place for a contract extension seems reasonable. It would produce a three-year contract worth $26.6 million, or a four-year deal worth $36.7 million. The risk to the Wizards would be minimal. At 8-10 percent of the salary cap, such a contract for Oubre wouldn’t become a cap albatross.
Oubre might be able to get more elsewhere, but it would require a team with cap room to make it work. Last summer, the mid-level exception for teams over the cap started at $8.4 million per year. It won’t be much higher than that this season.
Only teams with cap space will be able to make an offer above the mid-level exception, and even then they run the risk of having it tied up for several days while the offer sheet process plays out. Considering how few teams could have cap space next summer, it may be difficult to find a team willing to run the risk of tying up whatever cap space they have to go after Oubre, especially considering some of the other big names available next summer, both restricted and unrestricted.
Athree-year deal with a player option on a fourth season (something the Wizards have been willing to offer in negotiations with other players), would give him the financial security that comes from a multi-million dollar NBA contract, the opportunity to continue building fan equity and community ties, and the possibility of becoming an unrestricted free agent at age 26 or 27.
And, then fans get to keep a favorite player, and watch him grow into the elite producer we hope he’ll become.