Swimming somewhere in the commerce of free agency is one ideal that is essential to a championship-winning team. It isn’t talent, it isn’t money. Well, it isn’t either of those two by themselves. It’s a ratio that we in the world of sports call value.
The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement forces teams to decide which players are most important to success and who is worth what contract. Big-market teams decide weather or not to make a run and go over the cap, while smaller-market organizations ship away high-paid players for draft picks that they hope become Damien Lillard and not Royce White. It’s the good front offices that find value and the bad ones that don’t.
Some teams have it easy. Like the Miami Heat. Ray Allen, who made the contract-earning survival shot in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, decided to join the Heat for less money than he was offered to remain with the Boston Celtics. The Heat, with the spider-sensing LeBron James, is an attractive destination to veterans who seek something other than the largest pay check.
Some teams, like the Oklahoma City Thunder, do not have that luxury. Yes, they have Kevin Durant (undoubtedly the second best player in the NBA. But as Durant can claim No. 2, LeBron is far-and-away No. 1. Both are on another planet, but LeBron is super-humanly breathing easy on Neptune while Durant grasps for air on Venus) but Durant doesn’t have the luxury of wooing big-name free agent vets to Oklahoma. Not with Russell Westbrook eating up possessions like pepperoni-stuffed pizza rolls.
The Thunder is a perfect example of how teams are adjusting to the new CBA that is headlined by a staunch and unforgiving luxury tax — how some teams sink and others swim.
Fearing what James Harden would ask for (and deserve) when his rookie contract was due to expire this offseason, the Thunder urgently traded him before the season began in a trade that they hoped would keep them in contention. With an aging Spurs roster and Dwight-induced Laker squad, the Western Conference champs thought that they could replace Harden with Kevin Martin and not take too much of a step back. (They knew they were taking a step back, they just didn’t know how much. No one knew for sure the difference between Kevin Martin and Harden. Harden proved most everyone wrong by showing he is a true No. 1 for the Houston Rockets).
In turns out that step back was too much, and they fell ass-backwards and out of the playoffs early. They lost Westbrook against the Rockets, which hurt them a ton, but let’s be real. They were not getting past the Spurs even with Westbrook. Not without The Beard. Not with Kendrick Perkins doing Kendrick Perkins things and Scott Brooks inevitably floundering his way through lineup changes against Gregg Popovich.
They missed Harden and his pick-and-roll and big shot making ability. They especially missed his less-tangible tendency to bring calm to a cracked-out-on-Westbrook offense. Maybe they would have still opted not to pay Harden this offseason. But if they kept him, could they have gone to the NBA Finals? Plus, trade or no trade, they still don’t have Martin.
For a team like the Thunder, blunders like trading Harden a year early and swapping Jeff Green for Perkins can end up in a closed window. For the Heat? They can take chances on Eddy Curry, fill a roster spot with Juwan “I only play in garbage time against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 4 closeouts” Howard and pay Mike Miller inordinate amounts of cash to sit on the bench until the NBA Finals.
Why? Because they pay Ray Allen in nothing but South Beach prostitues in thongs to play in Miami (not really) and give Shane Battier an excuse to do this because he can get a friggin boat when he plays for the Heat.
And yet, the New York Knicks can’t get anyone to play in New York because they banked the mortgage on Carmelo Anthony; The L.A. Lakers are struggling post-Jerry Buss to make smart decisions and the Chicago Bulls almost too-stubbornly avoid all-stars like it’s thin crust pizza.
The big markets can’t rely on the size of their cities to get the right free agents. No matter what franchise, it takes a front office that is smart and acts deliberately and with foresight to win in the NBA.
As we approach the date when teams can amnesty players, we will see more of where the Heat’s head is at. Many people around the league expect the team to amnesty the aforementioned overly-paid Miller.
It’s worth noting that not every organization has Pat Riley — the Don Draper of the NBA — smooth talking players to play for him in Miami. But the Heat, unlike their big-city counterparts, have done a better job finding value and wooing the right guys to fill out a roster.
That brings us to Mario Chalmers.
Unlike Allen, Battier and others, Chalmers didn’t need wooing. Chalmers is Miami Heat born the old-fashioned way. The Heat got him in the draft — second round out of Kansas — developed him along Dwyane Wade and resigned him to a favorable deal. That deal included a $4 million team option for this summer.
As reported by Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, many didn’t expect the Heat to pick up that option when the contract was originally signed in 2011. They even drafted his eventual replacement, Norris Cole, that year in the draft. But two championships later with Chalmers starting at point guard, the Heat picked up his option without hesitation.
Instead the issue becomes what the Heat will do with him after the 2013-2014 season. Look at other B-level point guards like Jose Calderon (four years, $29 million) and Jarrett Jack (four years, $25 million) who signed this offseason. Both are being paid significantly higher than Chalmers and, while both are as good if not slightly better than Rio on offense, neither is anywhere near as reliable on defense.
And with three-point shooters like Kyle Korver (four years, $24 million), J.J. Redick (four years, $30 million) and Martin (four years, $30 million) getting the money they are, Chalmers, at his $4 million price tag, represents value.
Pick and rolls run the association and no P-n-R combination is as lethal for the Heat as the one formed between Chalmers and James. When Wade was slowed by his knees and Chris Bosh was ineffective against the length of his opponent during the Heat playoff run, Chalmers was the only one who could create his own shot and, many times, was the team’s second best option.
He’s also one of the team’s best three-point shooters. Teams know not to give him space, but also have to beware of his penetration ability when he is on his game. With the ball in his hand, he is one of the best spacers of the floor for the Heat.
The over-confident little brother of the big three believes he is a top 10 point guard. He isn’t afraid to take big shots or have the ball in his hand. If you’re Erik Spoelstra, why wouldn’t you want this guy in the locker room? Chalmers has an arrogance to him and, somewhere deep within, has the toughness and big-shot-ability that is prevalent among the NBA’s best. Just look at his bank-shot three that he hit at the buzzer at halftime of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, or this clip from Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
He scored 20 points in this game and was the only player not names LeBron James that could score. Without Chalmers, the Heat don’t win this game of a series that went seven.
Twice more he came up big during Miami’s championship run. After an opening loss in the NBA Finals, Chalmers scored 19 points in Game 2 against the Spurs. With the Heat on the brink of elimination, he had a forgotten 20 points in Game 6 of the Finals. The Heat trailed 44-50 at halftime of Game 6 and it would have been much worse if not for Chalmers, who ended up with the second-highest point total for Miami in the game.
Sure, sometimes he does things like this. (From the same Game 6)
But LeBron did that too. Twice. At the end of the same game.
Sometimes Chalmers looks bad. Very bad. That’s when the Heat put in Cole — equally as unafraid of taking shots somewhere between the big three — and luckily he’s usually on when Chalmers is off.
No one is saying Chalmers is an all-star point guard. Heck, it’s arguable if he’s even consistently as good as Jeff Teague or Brandon Jennings — two free agents who will make more money than Chalmers this season when they sign.
Chalmers isn’t the new No. 2 for LeBron. He isn’t unseating Wade or Bosh and who knows if the team will resign him after this year. The Heat has Cole, signed a number of undrafted point guards for summer league and talked with some free agents this summer. They are prepared for him to leave.
But for $4 million for this season? Well, uh, he is worth more than that.