Winners and Losers, Among the Losers

by May 22, 2013

by Leo Sepkowitz | @LeoSepkowitz

Only four teams remain in the Playoffs, as 12 have been knocked out. Some of those 12 teams went out in style (Warriors, Rockets), and some didn’t (Lakers, Nets). Similarly, some players on those 12 teams elevated their games in the Playoffs, even if it ultimately wasn’t enough to avoid elimination. Other guys withered with the spotlight fixed on them. Stepping up or bowing out really matters if you’re a free agent this summer, and your performance when it counts will dictate how big your next check will be. Here are five eliminated to-be free agents who will be—or should be, anyway—looked at differently because of how they played in the Playoffs.

Jarrett Jack—FA Stock Up

It’s nearly impossible to overstate how crucial Jack was to the Warriors’ success this postseason. In Playoff Clutch Time (officially defined on as a five-point game with five minutes or less remaining), Jack’s ranks are as follows: first in field-goal percentage (minimum 5 shots), first in free throws made (8), third in points (20).

On a young and streaky team, Jack was the cold-streak-stopper. Playing behind Curry (6-25 in postseason-Clutch Time), who became a sharp-shooting decoy for most of the Spurs series due to a bad ankle, Jack ran the show and kept Golden State competitive. They actually looked like the better team for much of that series. Jack scored 20+ six times in the Playoffs. The marvelous Curry did it eight times, Klay Thompson three.

After David Lee went down in Game 1 against the Nuggets, Jack started Game 2 in his place and scored 24 points in a team-high 42.5 minutes in a Dubs’ win. In what turned out to be a heart-breaking Game 1 loss to San Antonio, Jack kept the Warriors fighting with big buckets late in regulation and overtime. Jack tied Game 4 against the Spurs with a jumper with under a minute remaining in regulation. Fittingly, it was Jack who iced that same game at the line in overtime.

Golden State ultimately fell short of getting a chance to reach the Finals, but they overachieved nonetheless. Jack, who had scored 35 points in six career Playoff games before this incredible run, was a microcosm of it all.

He’ll likely get paid starter’s money this summer, and I certainly hope the Warriors retain him. It’ll be tough with Andris Biedrins and Richardson Jefferson making roughly $20 million combined and Andrew Bogut, David Lee and Stephen Curry combining for another roughly $38 million next season, but it’s doable.

Dwight Howard—FA Stock Down

Howard caught a lot of heat for a down year—probably too much (he was battling serious injuries and an inept coach in a huge market). But the way he closed the season was terrible. Howard played alright while the Lakers were non-competitive for the first three games of the Spurs series, but no-showed before quitting in Game 4, when L.A. was officially swept from the Playoffs. He played 20 minutes, and barely had more points (7) than missed free throws (6) and turnovers (5).

He’s an elite center and will likely come back healthy and dominant defensively next season, but big questions remain about his game. His offense has not improved over the past few years and he struggles passing out of the post. Much worse, Howard’s awful free-throw shooting has rendered him essentially useless on offense down the stretch in close games. This season, he made 23-45 free throws in Clutch Time. He attempted zero such shots in the postseason because the Lakers were never within five with five minutes to go. Think about that and then ask yourself if a team with Howard as its best player can truly contend for a title.

On top of that, he’s had serious back and shoulder problems, which would make me pretty nervous about giving him a max contract. I’m not saying Howard won’t get max money this summer, but I wouldn’t be the guy committing to paying D12 roughly $22 million per year (more than one-third of the salary cap) in the ’16-17 and ’17-18 seasons.

Nate Robinson—FA Stock Up

What an unbelievable Playoff run for Nate. He dropped 34 in a ridiculous comeback effort in Game 4 of Round 1 against the Nets. Then he was huge in Game 1 against Miami with 27, leading the Bulls to an upset win to start the series. We saw some bad Nate, too (0-13 in Game 4 against the Heat), but the awesome Nate out-shined the bad.

Everybody knew Robinson was an instant offense guy, but leading a comically injured Chicago team to a first-round upset and a mostly competitive series against Miami changed my perception of the 5-9 (maybe) guard. And since I can’t go more than a few paragraphs without referring to Clutch Time numbers (seriously, I can’t), here are more. In the Playoffs, Robinson played 30 Clutch minutes. He scored 24 points, which trailed only Kevin Durant (who needed 5 more shots to get there). His 47.4 percent shooting in Clutch Time leads non-centers who have attempted at least 10 shots. (Plus, much of the amazing Game 4 against the Nets does not count as “Clutch Time,” as Chicago was down by more than 5 when Nate did most of his damage.)

Robinson was playing for the veteran’s minimum this season, but won’t have to again next year. (Side note: Marco Bellineli did the same thing on a smaller level—I liked what I saw from him this postseason and he hits free agency this summer as well.)

Brandon Jennings—FA Stock Down

Point Guard A’s Playoff Numbers (4 games): 13.5 points (29.8 percent), 1.5 threes (21.4 percent), 4 assists, 2.25 boards per game, bad defense (you’ll believe me when you find out who it is)

Point Guard B’s Playoff Numbers (5 games): 14.2 points (41.8 percent) 1.6 threes (33.3 percent), 3.5 assists, 6.6 boards per game, great defense (you’ll believe me when you find out who it is)

Player B’s contract pays him $1.7 million over the next two seasons combined, while Player A will be a restricted free agent this summer. After the unimpressive postseason (11 points combined between Games 2 and 4 against the Heat), Player A, better known as Brandon Jennings, should be a little nervous about becoming a free agent.

Only so many teams will have max money available, and Jennings is simply not worth locking up with such a big contract. I like watching Jennings when he shoots well as much as the next guy, but he can be absolutely brutal and I don’t think he can run the show on a title contender. There’s a reason why in four years with Jennings as Milwaukee’s best offensive player, the Bucks have failed to reach the Playoffs twice and got swept once.

Jennings has tremendous offensive talent, but couldn’t co-exist with Monta Ellis (I’ve written about the Bucks’ backcourt incompetence before). Milwaukee also secretly had a strong front line (Sanders, Ilyasova, Gooden, Henson, Dalembert), and they still couldn’t win 40 games in a season where they faced the Bobcats, Pistons, Cavs, Wizards, Raptors, Magic, Suns and Hornets a combined 25 times. So where, exactly, are you going if Jennings is a max player on your team, essentially locking him into being the No. 1 or 2 guy for the next handful of years? Probably not very far.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Bucks value him this summer—they can match any contract he receives from another team. It’s not that hard to replace Jennings—a volume shooting point guard who doesn’t always deliver late. I think Dallas could be an interesting sleeper team for Jennings’ services, but anybody who gives him max dough will regret it.

PS—Player B is Patrick Beverley. What a steal.

PPS—I don’t think Ellis, a likely free agent, changed his free agent value much against Miami. He played well twice (22 and 21 points, 50+ percent shooting in Games 1 and 4, respectively) and left his game at home twice (7 points in Game 2 and Game 3, sub 30-percent shooting in each). You know what you’re getting from Ellis on a seasonal basis—lots of points, lots of shots, lots of games played and some underratedly good passing. He’s entering his age-28 season and deserves to be paid pretty well. Jamal Crawford gets between $5 and $6 million annually, so Ellis, in my mind, deserves about $6-8 million per year on a multi-year deal. He’ll likely get closer to or north of $10 million annually.

JR Smith—Stock Down

Total flop of a postseason for JR. It started off alright (15, 19, 15 in the Knicks three Ws against Boston) before this, this, this and, most importantly, this happened. In eight games P.S. (post-suspension), Smith failed to shoot 40 percent or better even once. Through the entire postseason, he never scored 20 or handed out more than 3 assists. In fact, his assist:turnover ratio was a hard-to-believe 15:20. JR hit 13-50 three-point tries P.S., and essentially no-showed the entire series against the Pacers. In his Knicks career, Smith has now played in 16 Playoff games, and boasts a 32.6 shooting percentage and 24.4 three-point percentage while taking 15 shots per game in those 16.

Toward the end of the regular season, I wrote that JR was hands-down the Sixth Man of the Year since he was the second-best player on the second-best team in the East. When it mattered, the Knicks proved to be unworthy of the No. 2 seed, and JR fell short of being an elite second option.

We should have seen it coming. I like JR, but I think he got overhyped this year by people including myself. Smith has no experience being a second option on a threatening team, but was thrown into the role this year. He was never suited for it, and while he more or less succeeded during the regular season, the postseason creates a much greater challenge. Unfortunately for the Knicks, who have max contracts tied into the invisible Amar’e Stoudemire and offensively limited Tyson Chandler, there was no choice but to make Smith a guy who gets 15-20 shots on a nightly basis.

Teams spend years (and sometimes draft picks) undoing past mistakes in the name of carving out salary cap space in the NBA. Paying Smith to be your No. 2 guy despite him hanging consistent 5-15’s in the Playoffs in that role would be idiotic, especially when last summer, slightly worse versions of JR named Nick Young, Randy Foye and Marco Bellineli got one-year contracts and it took just a two-year pact at $5 million per for Dallas to land OJ Mayo. It’s not hard to find someone who can get hot in a flash, and while Smith’s hot is hotter than most other players’, it’s just not worth the headache.

Smith will still get paid well, and he should, but a month ago he seemed like a good bet to land a four-year, $40-50 million deal from an overaggressive team or a team that struck out on the other big free agents. Now that seems a lot less likely.

Don’t Forget About These Guys

Some good to-be FAs are still fighting in the Playoffs. David West put forth very David Westian performances against the Hawks and Knicks, and likely didn’t change his value much. He’ll probably get something around the $10 million he’s currently earning annually. Manu Ginobili is suddenly more likely to score 8 points than 23, but that’s not really a sign of rapid decline. He’s developed into more of a facilitator who has the ability to score from anywhere in the floor if you take his unselfishness for granted. I think he’ll quickly re-up with San Antonio on a team-friendly “I’m Retiring Here” deal. Birdman Andersen has been awesome for Miami, and if teams aren’t scared off by his off-the-court problems, he should easily find a big raise from this year’s veteran’s minimum salary.

Memphis’ Tony Allen and San Antonio’s Tiago Splitter are the two wild cards for me. Allen, an unrestricted free agent, has made major noise with his defensive prowess this postseason, and could land a pretty sweet contract somewhere. I’d be careful if I were him, or a team in the bidding, though, as I think the Oklahoma State alum needs to be on a team that appreciates team defense and can thrive even with one of its wing players scoring 5-11 points per game.

The 28-year-old Splitter continued to improve this season, finishing with 10.5 points (56 percent) and 6.5 boards per game. Unfortunately he’s battled an ankle injury throughout the Playoffs so his numbers have taken a dive, but the Brazilian has scored 14 in two of his last three games. Splitter’s mostly gotten beaten up by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in Round 2, but his pick-and-roll defense has been good enough to keep him on the floor over Tim Duncan in crunch time. With JaVale McGee and DeAndre Jordan each making more than $10 million annually, it’s hard to imagine Splitter not getting an offer for at least $7 or $8 million per year as a restricted free agent. Assuming Splitter’s ankle has healed and he finishes the postseason playing well, San Antonio might have a tough time keeping him this summer.