HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — You are what your salary says you are in the NBA.
There’s no way around it. All the stats, traditional and advanced, in the world won’t change that fact. An All-Star playing on a rookie contract is a bargain. That same player with a max contract, or something in that neighborhood, suddenly become overpaid and a burden on his team.
The expectations change when the compensation increases, even if the player’s game doesn’t change. With most of the dust settled from this summer’s free-agent frenzy, we can see a clear picture where the marquee players are concerned.
Guys like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were going to get max dollars wherever they decided to play. That was a given, just like the pressure that comes along with being at the top of the superstar food chain in the league.
It’s the other guys, those guys who are making the transition from bargains to paid handsomely for their services, who will be in the crosshairs as the 2014-15 season draws near.
Five free-agent pick ups who have to live up to the hype this season, now that they compensation and expectations have reached franchise-player levels:
Luol Deng, Miami Heat
Chris Bosh got the No. 1 option money (five years, $118 million) from the Heat this summer, but it’s Deng who has the biggest shoes to fill. He’s the replacement in the starting line up for LeBron, an unenviable task if ever there was one. The Heat got Deng for a relative bargain (two years, $20 million), given the money that was flying around in free agency this summer. Deng, however, will not get a pass from anyone. Heat boss Pat Riley needs a player who can become an instant impact player and Heat fans, fair or not, are going to compare Deng’s immediate contributions to what James delivered the past four seasons. Deng has shown throughout his career that he’s more than capable of being a solid contributor, All-Star caliber even, on an elite team. So while Deng’s compensation hasn’t changed dramatically, the expectations have soared.
Marcin Gortat, Washington Wizards
Gortat was the first big-money free agent to agree to terms this summer, signing on for five years and $60 million to anchor the middle for an up-and-coming Wizards team. He’s facing the crucible of increased individual expectations as he’s on a team that enters 2014-15 with an entirely new set of expectations. The Wizards have all the pieces in place for a continued ascent in the Eastern Conference standings. They’ll need Gortat to play his part, though. He and Nene looked like a dynamic 1-2 big man punch in the 2014 playoffs. They’ll have to do it nightly with the Wizards’ dynamic backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal drawing tons of attention from opposing teams from now on. There can be no off nights for Gortat now that he’s being paid like the elite big man he appears to be.
Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
No player made a more surprising splash on the free-agent market this summer than Hayward, who cashed in with a four-year, $63 million offer sheet from the Charlotte Hornets that the Jazz matched without flinching. Hayward was solid last season for the Jazz, leading the team in scoring (16.2) and steals (1.4). But there is a quality debate to be had about whether or not he’ll be the best player at his position by the end of the 2014-15 season. Rookie Dante Exum is a dynamic talent who will push both Hayward and Alec Burks at shooting guard, when he’s not doing the same to Trey Burke at point guard. And let’s not ignore the obvious fact that Derrick Favors remains the most important player on the roster of a team desperate to rebuild as quickly as possible in a crowded Western Conference. Hayward clearly has the chops to be the face of a franchise (the Hornets wouldn’t have offered that monster deal otherwise). But seeing is believing in this case.
Chandler Parsons, Dallas Mavericks
Dirk Nowitzki is still the man in Dallas. Nothing will change that, not even the addition of a budding young talent like Parsons, acquired via that three-year, $46.1 million offer sheet the Houston Rockets decided not to match. Parsons is confident that he’s ready for bigger and better things than being the third or fourth option, the role he played in Houston. Mark Cuban and the Mavericks are paying him to play above and beyond what he’s used to and what we’ve grown accustomed to from the former second-round pick. Parsons landed in arguably the best predicament of any of the players on this list. He’ll have Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and Tyson Chandler to lean on, not to mention an elite coach in Rick Carlisle. Throughout his career, Carlisle has shown a consistent knack for putting the right players in the right positions. Parsons will have a clearly defined role within the Mavericks’ system. External expectations could pose the biggest challenge for him, though, as he’ll be paid like an All-Star — but can he play like one?
Lance Stephenson, Charlotte Hornets
Given what’s transpired in recent weeks for the Indiana Pacers (Paul George‘s injury), you know the Pacers would have been glad to pay Stephenson whatever it took to keep him in the fold. Instead, Stephenson opted for the fresh start (and three years and $27.4 million contract) that the Charlotte Hornets offered. While his new compensation probably isn’t what he expected or planned on, it’s a significant boost from what he earned last season. And the expectations for him in Charlotte, where Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker are already entrenched as leaders, couldn’t be greater. Larry Bird was an unabashed advocate for Stephenson, championing his talent and potential from the start while others chose the wait-and-see approach about enigmatic Stephenson. You wonder if Hornets owner Michael Jordan will be as vocal and adamant in his support of Stephenson. In Hornets coach Steve Clifford, Stephenson will certainly have someone willing to keep him on track at all times, in an effort to get the very best from one of the league’s most physically talented players at any position. The rest, of course, is up to Stephenson.