The rookie deal non-max extension is one of the least efficient/riskiest contracts in the NBA. It comes when a player is still very young, at a stage when it’s possible to believe he might advance more in the next 12 months than he did in the previous 36 combined — even if history says that sort of leap at age 23 or 24 is unlikely. If a team passes on an extension and that growth comes right away, the team will have cost itself something like $10 million or $20 million by failing to lock up the player ahead of restricted free agency. Saving that kind of money has real roster-building impact; Boston would be short a Jason Terry or Courtney Lee right now had it not locked up Rajon Rondo at an absurdly cheap price at the extension buzzer in 2009.
And this round of extensions came at an especially tricky period. As I wrote in evaluating the Ty Lawson/Stephen Curry deals, at least a dozen teams are set to have something very close to max-level cap room this summer in a market that will be almost entirely lacking in star free agents — assuming the Lakers, Sixers, and Clippers lock up Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, and Chris Paul, respectively. Cap holds and roster moves might take a couple of teams out of that max group, and only a few of them will have a glaring need at the relevant position — the wing, in the case of DeRozan and the Raptors. But as many NBA executives have told me, it takes only one sucker/*******/fool to blow up a player’s market value. The Mavericks, Cavaliers, Pistons, Bucks, Magic, and Kings are just a few of the teams that could have major cap room and holes at the wing if things break in a particular direction, and though not all of those teams are going to like DeRozan, it takes only one.
All of this was at work in Toronto’s decision to grant DeRozan an absurd extension, worth nearly $40 million over four years, that will put them over the cap this summer and take them out of the max-level cap derby in the summer of 2014. The trope is that “advanced statistics” frown on DeRozan, but the truth is that very few statistics of any kind paint him as a productive player. He’s a low-percentage shooter who can’t shoot 3s, and thus can’t space the floor on the wing. He has never shown even average creativity or timing as a passer, and Dwane Casey cut down on DeRozan’s pick-and-roll usage as soon as he got the Raptors head-coaching job. He’s a minus defender both on the ball (opponents shot better than 50 percent on isolation attempts last season, according to Synergy Sports) and not a particularly attentive helper off it. He’s only 23, but DeRozan has never had a league-average PER, and the chances he lives up to this deal are slim.
That said, the Raptors can at least hang their hat on a few things here:
• DeRozan has gotten to the foul line a fair bit, and that can be an indicator of future scoring prowess.
• Toronto will only be a hair above the cap this summer — and maybe right at it — meaning they’ll still have the full mid-level exception to use without any danger of approaching the tax line.
• DeRozan seems to be coming into his own as a bully of smaller players, something that might serve him well on the block against shooting guards.
• The four-year length leaves the five-year designated-player tag in the bag for Jonas Valanciunas.
• The Raptors cap sheet is clean enough that they could have something like $8 million to $10 million in cap space in the summer of 2014, even including Kyle Lowry’s cap hold. (Note: This assumes they renounce Ed Davis’s cap hold and that the salary cap levels grow by about 4 percent per year.)
• Toronto doesn’t have much (i.e., any) record of drawing max-level free agents, so although max-level cap room is useful for other purposes — including in-season trades — it has different levels of utility to different teams.
• Doing nothing is often not a realistic option for particular executives and ownership groups, even if it should be. There is an alternative path here: See how DeRozan performs this year, and if he’s shaky again with Terrence Ross waiting for more playing time, just let the guy walk and watch another sucker overpay. Teams are just loath to go that route, having invested years in asset development.
It’s not a catastrophic deal, since Toronto isn’t contending anytime soon regardless, and the cap sheet is almost spotless after 2014-15. But it’s a bad contract.