Rumors swirled around Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins all summer regarding his availability for an extension this summer, and finally last night, the news came through: according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Cousins signed a 4 year, $62 million maximum extension that will lock him up with the Kings through 2017-2018.
Reaction on Twitter and in basketball circles was swiftly negative: in short, very few observers think that Cousins adds enough to a team to justify a maximum salary contract. In what’s probably the definitive Cousins piece at this point, Zach Lowe argues that he’s a net negative on the floor, largely because of his inadequate defense. As Lowe says:
We tend to think of selfishness as something ball hogs exhibit on offense. But Cousins, to this point in his career, has been a selfish defender in lots of ways. He tries to minimize the amount of energy he expends executing the team’s scheme, and as a result, he stays very close to his own man when his team really needs him to be helping more aggressively.
If his passivness and selfishness were only downfalls of his defensive game, a max extension for Cousins wouldn’t be too shocking. After all, the NBA is riddled with bad defensive players, even among its stars. His offensive play isn’t completely selfish, as Cousins is a willing if unwise passer at times. But Cousins’ decision-making torpedoes his efficiency, leading him to take far too many long range jumpers at bad times and commit iffy turnovers trying to do too much with the ball. And of course, the off-court stuff is the stuff of legend: his run-in with Sean Elliott, the 17 technicals last season, the various unexplained suspensions are all symptomatic of a player who doesn’t buy into the team concept.
And yet, it’s all been rewarded with a maximum contract, the highest statement of confidence a team can put into a player. Why?
In 1999, another monumentally talented player was frustrating his small-market team. Stephon Marbury was unhappy with the huge $126 million extension the Minnesota Timberwolves signed fellow star Kevin Garnett to, limiting Marbury’s possible extension to just $71 million. Instead of dealing with the inequity, Marbury decided to force a trade, ending up with the New Jersey Nets, where he signed his maximum money deal. This cemented his reputation as a selfish player. In a conversation with New York Magazine, he would respond to his critics:
“If I didn’t play the way how I played, I wouldn’t have gotten no max contract [sic],” he said. “They can talk about whatever they wanna talk about me, because I got maxed. I’m a max player. Don’t get mad at me, because I’m telling you what’s real. One plus one is two, all day long, and it’s never gonna change. And that’s factorial.”
Marbury and Cousins aren’t alone: young players who go out and “get theirs” are usually rewarded, no matter the efficiency. Steve Francis shot just 41.7% in the season before extension eligibility, but he managed to shoot enough to get 21.6 points per game. He signed a 6 year, $80 million extension. Baron Davis shot 41.7% in the season leading up to his maximum extension with the Hornets. He signed for 6 years, $60 million. Charlie Villanueva’s albatross deal came after he shot just 44.7%, and his usage jumped up to 28.5% in his contract season. Larry Hughes’ contract year was another example of increased usage and lower efficiency being rewarded: he only shot 43% for 22 PPG before he signed his 5 year, $70 million deal. The list goes on.
On the other hand, young players who fit within a team concept are subject to myriad factors beyond their control, factors that may get in the way of their millions. Teammates using a majority of possessions, coaches limiting a young player’s time on the court, and minimal media attention to those who help in other ways besides scoring can all artificially lower a player’s contract value in relation to his value on the floor. For every rewarded Roy Hibbert, there’s an underpaid Paul Millsap.
The NBA and the metrics movement have gotten smarter about recognizing the difference between perceived and actual value, but the Cousins contract shows that we’re not quite out of the woods yet. In the meantime, those young players who treat their contextual situations selfishly are more likely to receive more money, despite the negative consequences those actions have on their team’s win-loss record and overall success.
While the max contract game might make as much sense as “one plus one is two, all day long” to the selfish Stephon Marburys and the DeMarcus Cousins of the world, the truth is that the same math doesn’t apply to the teams who spend too much money on players who end up taking value off the table.
And that’s factorial.