Should Celtics Outbid Magic for Tobias Harris?


To Pay or Not to Pay

2014-2015 stats: 17.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.5 blocks

It’s difficult to determine the supposed worth of a player like Tobias Harris. He is, without a doubt, an NBA-caliber player. However, considering he’s only 22-years-old, and largely unproven, his value is primarily predicated on his potential ceiling.

Under restricted free agency, for whom Harris is currently a subject, the team which holds his bird rights (contractual proviso allowing teams to exceed the salary cap) – in this case being Orlando – has the ability to match any qualifying offer sent to Harris. Due to Harris’ perceived potential (albeit with a high-usage rate on a weak Magic team), he’ll receive at least one max-contract, forcing the Magic to quickly decide if he’s a player they’re willing to build around.

Harris currently stands at a fork in the road – with two directions to go: the Jeff Green route and the Jimmy Butler route.

The Orlando Magic must attempt to forecast the future and decide which road they believe Harris will take.

The Jeff Green Road 

With Jeff Green, the potential was always there: staring us in the face, almost taunting us. After years of waiting for him to break out, it became clear; Green would never become Pierce’s successor and his potential would remain forever untapped. (On a side not: coming to this conclusion made the Kendrick Perkins trade all the more heartbreaking.)

Circa 2012, though, Jeff Green was in the same position as Tobias Harris: young, promising and approaching the end of his rookie contract. Any inconsistency Green exhibited in Oklahoma City was excused for having to contend with Durant, in addition to playing heavy minutes at the four (where he was – and remains – outmatched) at the behest of Scott Brooks.

In order to prevent Green from becoming an unrestricted free agent, Danny Ainge matched any qualifying offer and extended Green to the (at the time large) 4-year-$36 million deal. As Green’s weaknesses (inconsistency, timidness, etc…) manifested itself, the contract became a burden and proved to Danny that betting on potential was a precarious practice.

After Ainge flipped him for an expiring contract (Tayshaun Prince) and an IOU courtesy of the LA Clippers (Austin Rivers, who instantly gave to his Dad), Jeff Green tried to gel into the starting lineup of the playoff-bound Memphis Grizzlies. For a team lacking any significant offensive potency, the Grizzlies were hoping Green could become one of their primary offensive weapons. Green was inserted into the starting lineup to replace the offense-averse Tony Allen. By playoff time, however, Green would be back to bench and Tony Allen would be starting.

Now entering the last year of his contract, Jeff Green’s picking up his $9.2 million player-option. In anticipation of the lucrative TV deal, teams are signing middle-tier players to disproportionately-large contracts (see: Alec Burks 4-year-$42 million contract). A valuable 28-year-old should therefore opt-out of their contract and reap the benefits of the higher salary cap, yet Jeff Green isn’t valuable at this point. He’s yet to prove he legitimately improves any competitive roster and thus, will warrant a modest deal in the future.

More from Celtics News

The Jimmy Butler Road

In poker, perhaps the one thing more agonizing than losing a hand, is opting to play it safe and in turn, missing out on a very large amount of winnings.

In hindsight, Danny Ainge should have foregone the hefty Jeff Green extension. However, if Ainge didn’t extend him at the time – and Green ended up became the next Tracy McGrady – Ainge would no longer be the Celtics GM.

This exact scenario may play out in Chicago. Prior to the start of the 2014-2015 season, Jimmy Butler – who was entering the last year of his rookie contract – was confident that he’d soon sign a contract extension with the Bulls by the October 31st deadline. Yet, the deadline passed with no agreement in place.

Butler was offered a 4-year-$40 million offer from the Chicago Bulls. Looking back, the offer was insulting.

At the time of the proposed deal, the offer wasn’t quite as egregious. Prior to last summer, Butler had just recovered from injury and was yet to prove himself as a consistent offensive player. He shot just 39% from the field and 28% from three during the 2013-2014 season and posted a mere 13.5 PER.

Bear in mind that when Butler’s contract-extension conversations were occurring, the Celtics had already re-signed Avery Bradley to a 4-year-$32 million contract. At that point Bradley had a much better prior season than Butler too, averaging 15 points on 44% shooting.

The Bulls took all this into consideration and offered Butler the laughable extension.

It was Butler who took the risk, and it paid off handsomely. He left guaranteed money on the table and in turn, averaged: 20 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Butler would go on to make his first All-Star Game, make the NBA All-Defensive 2nd Team (for the second time in his career) and win the Most Improved Player Award.

Now rumors have come to light suggesting a back court power struggle between Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, further hurting the Bulls’ chances of re-signing Jimmy Butler. To the dismay of Bulls fans and Celtics fans alike new reports have suggested a growing mutual interest between the Lakers and Jimmy Butler. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reports:

"As Butler spends time in Los Angeles this summer, a stretch that’s included an overseas “Entourage” promotional jaunt with producer Mark Wahlberg, Butler’s intrigue with signing a potential Los Angeles Lakers offer sheet has increased, league sources told Yahoo Sports"

(On a separate note: What the hell, Mark? I thought you were a Celtics fan?!)

The rumor mill has suggested Butler is now, in an effort to really maximize his next contract, toying with the idea of betting on himself again and sign a one-year deal (presumably with Los Angeles) to take advantage of the rising salary cap.

While the notoriously-fickle Bulls’ front office likely deserves this  comeuppance (see falling out between Bulls’ FO and Michael Jordan, in addition to the Tom Thibodeau situation), it’s hard to blame them for low-balling Butler before his unforeseen and rapid development.

If it was the added monetary incentive that vaulted Butler into stardom, since it’s no secret players perform better in contract years, expect Butler to play at a high-level again next season if he takes a one-year deal.

If Butler had regressed this season instead of break out, we’d be singing a very different tune as the Bulls would now be in a far worse situation if they had overpaid him.

The High Road

Extending guaranteed contracts to veteran athletes requires the front office to bet against significant injuries, lengthy suspensions and serious regressions in an athletes’ abilities. However, for players approaching the end of their rookie contracts, the front office is betting against all the aforementioned risks, in addition to betting the player will significantly improve.

Essentially, they’re paying veterans based on how they performed on their last contract, while with players receiving their first non-rookie contract, they’re paying them at a price proportional to how well they’re expecting them to play.

The risk is significantly higher for these players as they’re receiving payment to perform at a level they presumably haven’t reached yet (and may never reach), while veterans are paid to play at a level which isn’t necessarily uncharted territory for them.

Unlike former-Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who will also receive a max contract this summer (will Spurs choose Aldridge or Leonard? Both?), Tobias has yet to really earn anything in this league. He’s played at a high-level for a 22-year-old yet, he hasn’t played in a single playoff game. Over the past couple of seasons, Harris has actually been one of the older starters on an immature Magic team devoid of a veteran presence outside of Channing Frye.

Harris’ stats at first glance suggests an improvement over each season, however, looking a little closer, his per-game stats appear increase only proportional to increased playing time. His PER has been decent yet, remained relatively stagnant – hovering between 16 and 17 – since 2012. Additionally, his true shooting percentage (perhaps the best metric of a player’s shooting efficiency) has been between .527 and .551 since his debut.

As a matter of fact, Harris’ statistical stasis is a bit of an anomaly. His field goal percentages each year have been, respectively: 46.7%, 45.5%, 46.4%, and 46.5%. The uncanny consistency doesn’t end there: his usage rate has only had a variance of 1% since he’s entered the league. This may actually somewhat explain the scary-steadiness of Harris’ stats, however, the point still stands: he doesn’t appear to be making any significant strides each year.

One improvement Harris has made in his game is his three-point stroke: progressing from 26% his rookie season to 36.4% this season

Any other year, if I were the Magic, I’d be leaning towards not signing Harris at the max, but luckily for Orlando, the cap increase next season should make their decision easier.

Because of this reformatting of the salary cap, there’s a way for Orlando to avoid what happened with the Bulls and Butler, in addition to the Jeff Green situation: pay the man! However, pay Harris at the  “standard” rate that max contracts are scaled under the current cap.

Although more proven players are either accepting additional-year player-options or signing one-year contracts to capitalize on the increasing cap, Harris simply doesn’t have the leverage yet to earn such accommodating contracts, so he’ll look for whatever max he can get.

If Orlando can manage to sign him to a max contract under the current standard, then the Magic will be able to sign at least two more max players once the new cap takes effect.

Meanwhile, if Harris asks for +$20 million and Orlando refuses, I’m of the belief Boston should forego any contract talks with Harris. Although Butler didn’t make the All-Star jump until he was 24, at least there was a level of variance that existed in his stats, which displayed a growth in Butler as a player. With Harris, there isn’t anything about his play that suggests he could mature into a legitimate star . With Jeff Green still fresh on the minds of Celtics fans and Danny Ainge alike, signing Tobias Harris to a max contract may yield the same result, just with worse consequences.

For Orlando, it’s a different situation seeing as they possess his bird rights. They’ll also own Victor Oladipo’s and Nikola Vucevic’s, whom will warrant also max offers, as I’m certain at least one of them will stay in Orlando.

For the Celtics, we’re still in the search for our next Paul Pierce, and I just don’t see Harris being the best – or even second-best – on a contender.